We see lists everywhere. I know there are numerous articles floating through your Facebook and Twitter feed that look like this: “7 successful habits you need to do,” or “8 tips for getting your summer body,” or “5 hottest stocks in tech you need to invest in NOW.”

Lists permeate every aspect of our lives. From religion, to work policies, to productivity. We almost cannot escape them.

In our defense, there are psychological benefits to lists. Here are a few:

Lists make information more digestible

Taking in data from a list means the data is already structured for us. We don’t expend extra brain power trying to sort out the key points. As Jane Porter writes in her “Fast Company” article about lists:

“Psychologically, the list enables us to digest information in bite-sized form rather than tackling a giant tempest of tasks all at once. Lists gel well with the brain’s cognitive penchant for categorization”

Maria Konnikova has a great analogy in her New Yorker article about a fantastic analogy about lists and their efficiency:

“…a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale”

It helps us remember things

Checklists, for example, allow us to recall things we need or things we need to accomplish. A checklist presents information in a category – “to-do list” or “groceries” for the information, and we enjoy categorized data. Secondly, our brains are better equipped at sifting through the organized information. Konnikova writes in the same article:

“When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves”

It reduces the need to choose.

The more options we have to trudge through, the worse we feel. The list provides us a definitive amount of information to filter through. As Claudia Hammon from BBC.com writes:

“Packaging information as a list gives us a sense that the list is all settled and this is the end of the matter. Uncertainty is reduced and we love anything which gives us a semblance of control in an uncertain world. Plenty of psychological research over the decades shows that we have a desire to feel as though we’re in control and that when we do it is good for our well-being.”

Ultimately lists organize data for us that would otherwise feel chaotic.

Define the abstract

These psychological reasons are great explanations why lists are fantastic. I am a huge fan of lists, order, and easily digestible information.

However, my favorite reason for using lists is that helps define the abstract.

For example, if you wake up and as you’re drinking your coffee, or tea, or water, you say to yourself, “I’m going to have a productive day.” What does that mean? How is your day going to be productive? What are you going to do to make it productive?

A productive day is rather nebulous. Now insert a list of clearly defined actions, and you’re able to quantify your productivity for the day. In fact, by comparing what you actually get done versus what you wanted to get done, you grade your productivity.

I know that most of you are the type to get everything done anyway, so give yourself 100% now.

A Rapper’s recipe

Imagine that you’re a rapper that’s been signed onto one of the hottest rap labels in the last decade, and the CEO says “It’s time to be a good rapper!” What do you do? What makes a good rapper? What sells records?

In 2011, a young rapper named Kendrick Lamar was recording an album, and a reporter snapped this picture of list of 5 principles on an “inspiration board.”  The list is actually inspired by the CEO of Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE).

The list created by the TDE executive is a consolidated list of lessons he garnered from other successful hip hop moguls, like 50 cent. The list serves a Recipe (pun intended) for Lamar.

An image of the list that was posted on an “inspiration board” in the garage where Kendrick Lamar was recording his famous sophomore album, “good kid, mA.A.d city” Source: The California Sunday Magazine

The list must have been an inspiration to Lamar because the album he recorded was the highly critically-acclaimed “good kid, mA.A.d City.” This album won Lamar 7 Grammies, and skyrocketed him to the top of the rap game. He’s become one of the generation’s most recognized rappers.

Since then, Kendrick Lamar has released two more platinum albums with “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “DAMN.

Google it

I have this theory that your product or idea has reached the stratosphere of popularity when it is used colloquially as a verb.

For example, if you ask me a question where I don’t know the answer, my response will be “I don’t know; Google it.

Google has become as part of modern day culture. It useful for almost anything. If you have a question, Google can answer it. In fact, according to Alexa.com, Google.com is the #1 visited website in the world.  

Google originally started as a way to better link research pages to each other and ranked those searches. Since it has taken the world by storm, Google has not stopped innovating. Here’s a snippet of Google’s history, according to them.

Working from their dorm rooms, they built a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. They called this search engine Backrub.

 

Soon after, Backrub was renamed Google (phew). The name was a play on the mathematical expression for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros and aptly reflected Larry and Sergey’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

From Google stemmed Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Hangouts, Google Chrome, Android phones, Chromebooks, Google Docs, etc. You get the picture.

Google founders, Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin (right) working out of the “Google Garage” Source: Google.com

It’s simple, yet ambiguous for Google to tell its employees to be “innovative.” By the very definition of the word, it’s creating something new. However, just because something is novel, that doesn’t mean it will be effective nor well- received.

As you guessed it, even Google has a list. Their list is a list of 8 innovation principles. Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur and best-selling author, derived the list of innovation principles from a 2011 article written by Google’s SVP, Susan Wojcicki. The list of principles are:

  1. Focus on the user

  2. Open will win

  3. Ideas can come from everywhere

  4. Think big, but start small

  5. Never fail to fail

  6. Spark with imagination, fuel with data

  7. Be a platform

  8. Have a mission that matters

With this list, Google has defined how they want the products to be innovative. However you feel about Google and it’s products, it’s hard to deny their success.

Define YOUR abstract

For the explanations mentioned above, we know that lists are effective. They get the job done, and our brains are thankful for the efficiency.

Now I want you to define your abstract. For Kendrick Lamar, it was to conquer the rap game. For Google, it was to innovate. For you, it could be anything you want.

Think small or think big. It’s up to you.

Whatever you decide, create a list that clearly defines what that abstract means to you. Break it down as simply as you can.

Your abstract may seem unreachable, but further defining your abstract will make it feel more attainable. Once you’re able to better comprehend what you want, you can then better visualize accomplishing it. The list will serve as a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Congratulations, you’ve inspired yourself!

Lists can be great to organize your thoughts and create a vision. They can also help define you and inspire others. Who knows, maybe one day, your list will be a famous list people use as example of success.

Readers, how do you use lists in everyday life? Do you have a favorite list, if so, share it in the comments below!

-KG