Without a list, Edison might have missed lightbulb moment
First published in the Sunday Times on 10th July 2016.
I have a guilty secret: I like writing lists. For many years I have carried a little notebook in which I jot down “to-do” items, and these scribbled reminders help me to organise my life.
I was reassured that this wasn’t a weird habit when I read The Checklist Manifesto, which was published in 2010 by respected surgeon and author Atul Gawande. He shows how ticking off a series of procedures — whether it be pilots flying a plane or surgeons carrying out an operation — reduces errors when undertaking complex tasks.
Of course, there are differences between his checklists and mine. His lists are available for team members to monitor each other; mine act more as a personal aide-memoire.
Lists are important for me because I am not, by nature, as systematic in my work as I could be. Sometimes I concentrate too much on the big picture and rely too much on intuition. Checklists mean I am less likely to forget vital details. I follow in the footsteps of men such as the oil tycoon John D Rockefeller. He always kept a little red notebook to jot down ideas — as did Thomas Edison, one of my heroes. And I have always admired Benjamin Franklin, king of the to-do list. He committed to self-improvement with the help of lists in his notebook. When he was 79, he said, “I am indebted to my notebook for the happiness of my whole life.”
I write an annual list of objectives — a little like a set of new year resolutions, although mine are rather specific. But I have never prepared a lifetime set of goals, unlike the American entrepreneur Ted Leonsis, who made a fortune as one of the early executives at AOL and owns a number of American sports teams.
Leonsis explained: “I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to live life on offense, but I decided that a good place to start was giving myself a scorecard — a tool that I could use to make sure that I accomplish everything I want to with my life.”
He made a list of 101 things he wanted to do, which makes fascinating reading. He divides it into seven categories: family matters; financial matters; possessions; charities; sports; travel; and stuff. The list is very revealing — and very American. Take No 15, for example: net worth of $1bn, after taxes (not yet achieved). No 25: own a yacht. No 30: own a Ferrari.
Nevertheless, many of his achievements are impressive, and his openness in telling everyone what he wants to do is refreshing. I would not be so brave.
I find that one of the results of writing down a hope or a dream is that it becomes slightly more concrete, even if you are the only audience.
Preparing a business plan for a new enterprise makes the whole undertaking more real, and embodies more of a commitment than vague discussions.
In a similar vein, attendees at this year’s Founders Forum received a book called 101 Things To Do Before You Die, by Richard Horne. It is a tongue-in-cheek little manual, aimed at charting “your sporting triumphs, your sexual misadventures, your lifetime struggles and your reckless behaviour”. Although some of the items are foolish (get arrested, get barred from a pub), I like the author’s approach when he writes: take risks; be creative; be patient; push yourself; and take the opportunity.
I was surprised at some things on the list that I had done, such as throwing a house party when my parents were out (and, yes, it led to a lot of trouble), but I suspect I will not even get to 50 by the time I’m dead.
The two items on the list I’d most like to do, but I’m not sure I ever will, are build my own house and invent something. However, there’s still time . . .
There is also a website called Dayzero, which describes itself as the largest community of goal-setters in the world. It sets the challenge of doing 101 things in 1,001 days, making the valid point that open-ended bucket lists tend not to work: there needs to be deadlines. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Dayzero community’s challenges relate to travel plans, albeit it some of them fairly adventurous. Taken as a whole, the ideas are not terribly imaginative or testing.
Some think to-do lists are a bad idea. For example, a Forbes article claimed that “Millionaires Don’t Use To-Do Lists” because they don’t account for time, they don’t distinguish between urgent and important, and they contribute to stress. Instead, the article argued, one’s diary is the key device for managing one’s life, because what gets scheduled gets done.
My practical view about lists is that the items on them should be specific, actionable, non-conflicting and prioritised. Also, lists should be short and regularly updated.
And be proud that you are a list maker — all the best people do it.