The Power of Lists

In meetings, I doodle and draw, which typically turns into a sort of list-making. Doing this helps me listen and remember things, connect pictures to notions, ideas to processes, priorities to actions, and helps me quickly synthesize things that are said into succinct, concrete tactics and strategies to help myself and others understand complex things better. These often turn into lists.

As I get older, I do this more and more, which means I’m starting to get pretty good at it. Yes, I do this with paper and pencil. Then, if it’s a keeper, I take a picture of it with my phone and attach it as an artifact to a relevant project folder in the digital realm.

chad calease - i make lists in my own, weird way, okay?To be honest, I don’t really make lists, at least, not in the traditional way most people might imagine. My drawings evolve or devolve (as the case may be) into lists and, even though they often don’t look like typical ones, they provide some incredible (and often unexpected) value:

  • First, lists are awesome tools against procrastination. Ideas, in the raw, are often pretty abstract. Making a list of actionable, concrete steps with deadlines helps set me up to make ideas real.
  • I sometimes get mired in the details for new ideas. Making lists helps me be more discerning about what really matters and what essential core requirements are, which is just as good for my own feelings of competency and ability about myself as it is for positive outcomes. Making lists builds confidence.
  • Anxiety – it’s easy to get overwhelmed and then putter out due to feelings of disorganization, etc. Making lists this way (especially the drawing part) sets me up for success when there’s going to be LOTS of work to do with lots of complexity!
  • Sometimes the goal of a project is somewhat elusive prior to making a list. Making lists of questions is particularly satisfying in these cases and helps work through any confusion and illuminate purpose.
  • It’s easy for me to set off running in my excitement about a new idea. Making lists helps me focus and determine the best steps, which in turn informs which direction to run in and the plan for each milestone.
  • Large and complex projects can often start off with a complete mental overload of information. Chunking things together or chopping them apart into lists fosters good practice in careful selection and prioritization of components and order which can make the work ahead seem less daunting, making it easier to maintain enthusiasm and momentum.
  • Making lists is meditative in how it centers my thoughts. I’ve made lists about what I see the kids doing well or not doing so well, what others are saying or not saying and even lists of positive things about people I don’t like or trust. It’s amazing how such a simple exercise can turn a challenging situation around.

Taking time to make lists is what I call “in between moments” because it never takes very long and can be done in between higher priority sorts of tasks. An analogy might be like stopping, taking my glasses off (if you wear glasses you understand) and, for the time it takes to clean them, considering my options for the day, clearing my mind completely or thinking of something I’m looking forward to. It’s restorative and is a positive way to break up the day and move forward with greater clarity.

Some lists I’ve made that are my favorites have come about in the most unlikely ways and times, too. For example, I once found myself in between moments wherein I had to be patient and endure a challenging situation with some tough personalities. Next thing I knew, I was quietly listening, drawing my doodles/lists, iterating and chunking them off into groups a la the Cynefin Framework, a tool I often use in my work (there’s a separate post on that here).

I was inspired by the challenges of that moment because, without any real intention, I found myself making lists of the kinds of value I bring to teams. I unwittingly considered a ten year span of my work in technology across industries, disciplines and sectors. I made about a dozen lists in that context without thinking much about it, just riffing.

more doodled listsOut of the batch, my two favorite ones were clear: illicit vs. explicit or “unknown value” vs. “known value”.

“Known value” represented the value I brought to teams that was either anticipated, expected or known. “Unknown value” represented the value I brought to teams that was not anticipated or expected, unknown, meaning things I did behind-the-scenes that no one was aware of. Things I did to make my life + those of my team easier or more predictable or something that is less quantifiable in some way. It led to some pretty cool outcomes that I couldn’t have planned.

There is no way I could have known how that list of unknown values would impact the course of my life and work in the days ahead. In a nutshell, that single list led to some pretty cool choices and decisions that I could not have anticipated or discovered in any other way.

In a world where so many things seem so far out of our control, making lists is a worthwhile way to spend a few moments regaining some semblance of it. In addition to a centering sort of feeling making lists can offer, I hardly ever know how they will unfold, where they will lead or how they will shape my own future in some small way for the better.