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What your list-making technique says about you

“Being overstretched is a fact of life for working mothers,” agrees The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, a novel in which Pearson documents the ongoing mental list of her heroine, Kate Reddy, in every chapter. “Basically, they’re doing two full-time jobs simultaneously, they have to remember all the domestic stuff – child’s dentist appointment, dog flea treatment, new school shoes, mother-in-law’s birthday – plus all the office stuff. It’s a recipe for madness, which is where The List comes in. Always has at least 23 items on it and never seems to get any shorter, but at least it gives the illusion you have things under control.”

“I feel more in control when I have a list,” agrees my friend Laura, who is not a mother but loves a list as much as any parent I know. “I even put things on a list when I’ve done them so I can tick them off.” She’s not the only one – I’m definitely guilty of, if not retrospectively adding items, at least putting a few easy-to-achieve tasks on there – “Change sheets” or “Book dentist”, for example (especially if that’s counterbalanced by more complex issues to sort, like researching a piece or deciding what to get my son for his birthday). I’m not quite as meta as one person Dr Nolan interviewed, who included “make list” on their list of things to do. But I’m not above simply erasing a task when enough time has passed to turn it from aspiration to impossibility. 

My husband’s list, by contrast, is both task-oriented and boiled strictly down to the bare minimum of things he needs to do: “Collect dry-cleaning”, “Put up shelf’. He wouldn’t dream of wasting time adding something to a list that he’d done already, or putting something unachievable on. It seems that men are generally less consumed in their list-making with the existential angst of life (“be nicer, more patient person with Emily so she doesn’t grow up to be needy psychopath” is one item on Kate Reddy’s mental list). 

“I have lists for most days,” says my uncle, Nick Jarrett-Kerr, a former lawyer and management consultant who is a self-confessed “Enneagram 3”, a personality type that loves lists: “We’re very task-oriented. Things have to be done and I have to make a list of them and I have to tick them off so I can organise myself and my mind.” As well as a short-term daily list, however, Nick also uses “Vision, Intention and Meaning” plans for the bigger things in life – weight loss, for example – which include why he wants to do something, what the intention is and what might get in the way of doing it, so he can embark on a specific action plan. Doubtless he would be horrified by the random nature of my own lists, which might include something like “Sort teeth?” alongside “Buy veg”.

How do you make yours?

Certainly the way in which one makes a list can be as telling as what’s on it – and that’s before you even get to the crossing off part. I’ve already mentioned spreadsheets, Trello and Google docs for different natures of lists, but some people will only make lists in a certain notebook, or with a certain pen, even with a particular type of pen nib. Nolan uses different corners of the paper in her notebook for certain things; family-related stuff top left; work top right; “boring house admin” bottom right; “and bottom left is more fun stuff. I will always have a proper piece of paper. I circle important things and scrub them out when they’re done, I don’t tick.”