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THE HUMAN CONDITION WHY WE MAKE LISTS : Seizing the Day

February 27, 1992|CRAIG TOMASHOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Things to do this morning:

--Make coffee

--Find horoscope

--Make more coffee

--Read story about people who make lists

--Cross everything already done off list

--Feel rush that comes with throwing out list

--Make new list

If all of this makes sense, then what follows should be very familiar material--if not to you, then to someone you know, someone whose list-making ways you've probably described in not-too-kindly ways.

You see, we humans have spent centuries trying to invent ways to make all we have to do go by easier. It probably started with the wheel. And fire. Later there were tools. And servants, of course. Then computers.

But perhaps the most important and enduring invention for coping with life's busywork is also the simplest: the almighty List. It could be the grocery list or the laundry list or the Christmas card list or the daily to-do lists scrawled on yellow Post-It notes and stuck all over your desk.

Jani Lane, lead singer for the rock band Warrant, has kept everything from the List of Potential Girlfriends he had in his single days to the Sexual Pat on the Back List (which speaks for itself) to the People I Want to Kill List.

"That's my favorite one, the one that lets out the most tension," he says.

Whatever your preference, the power of the list reigns supreme. Even the Bible makes that clear. After all, that book provided the ultimate list to live by: the Ten Commandments.

According to David Viscott, TV-radio psychiatrist, lists have been around at least since our ancestors developed the concept of time. Once they did that, they had to figure out how to fill it.

"Lists have always implied social order," he says. "The original lists were probably carved in stone and represented longer periods of time. They contained things like 'Get More Clay. Make Better Oven.' Lists today are a way of trying to get through the day, because we are losing a sense of time. People now feel time accelerating. Lists allow them to feel some sense of accomplishment."

Like your wardrobe, the reason you choose to make a list speaks volumes about who you are. For instance, maybe you do it to feel organized.

That's the case for Susan Levin, director of publicity for TriStar Pictures. A self-confessed workaholic, she keeps three lists.

There's the one at work, reminding her of business calls and correspondence. And there's the personal list always being updated in her date book, with its notations of shopping trips that must be made and letters that must be written.

Finally, just to be sure, she keeps track of things that should be placed on other lists on a note pad next to her bed.

"If I wake up in the middle of the night with something to put on one of my lists, I can write it down," she confesses. "Lists are like my security blanket. With them I have a hold on reality."

Lists can also be a memory aid.

"They relieve the anxiety over forgetting," says Viscott, an inveterate list-maker who hangs what he calls an "action board"--detailing his forthcoming projects--in his office. "They keep you knowing where you stand."

Linda Loner agrees. The advertising director for Los Angeles Lawyer magazine has days when her voice mail gets jammed with close to 100 messages. The only way to wade through it is to compile a list. Each task gets a number, in order of importance. The most urgent duties are also written in boldface. If and when an item gets delegated, it stays on the list, but the boldface is taken away.

Along the same line, lists can be a person's way of proving there is order to the universe. Once your life is put on paper, you can see that it isn't all chaos, no matter what's going on around you. Even in the hectic world of rock 'n' roll, a list comes in handy.

"When you're on the road, the first thing that comes under your door every morning is a list," says rock singer Lane. "There are set lists, lists of interviews to do. Before we go on tour, we make lists of the available golf courses in the towns we're going to. And a list of favorite bars. Everything is on a list."

The key to keeping your universe in order, he figures, is to organize your list properly. Know what to put on it and how to prioritize. Make sure that even the trivial events secure a place.

"The first thing on it should be easy, so you can do it and feel motivated," Lane explains. "The ones toward the end of the list should be, like, 'Oh God, if I pull this one off, that will really be something.' "

Perhaps the most critical reason to keep a list, though, is to show yourself how much work you do. In the end, getting a task done may be meaningless. But the act of crossing it off your list? Now that's a good feeling.

Mara Mikialian, the manager of program publicity for HBO, occasionally does something she didn't write on her list. But she'll put it on paper after it's accomplished anyway, just for the thrill of checking off.

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