Two of our most time-tested and influential texts are lists of ten: The Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments. The first defines basic freedoms in the United States and the second presents requirements for living as moral human beings.1 Each of these profound texts is simply a list: an ordered sequence of items with a brief description accompanying each item.
One of the most well-known poetic lists is “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barret Browning, which begins: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The sonnet then follows with a list of ways to love.
Taking a cue from Elizabeth Browning, let us count the ways that lists help memory and focus our daily lives.
1. Externalizing what we need to remember.
Lists are useful because they document what we ordinarily forget. Memory strongly prefers internal structure, and without this structure, remembering is hard work. Unlike stories—in which events are connected by cause and effect—items on a list have no internal structure, except verticality. The first item on a list does not cause the second. A series needs to be written—otherwise, we will forget what’s on it.
2. Remembering across contexts.
When we retrieve a memory, it is often retrieved in context. Without the right context, we have difficulty remembering. That’s why people can forget why they came into a room—the initial encoding context was in a different room. Lists provide an effective, context-free method for remembering.
3. Resonating with our serial processing.
We naturally take things one at a time. What feels like parallel processing is often sequential, with several tasks performed one at a time quickly. The linear layout of a list is friendly to our serial processing.
4. Adding without restructuring.
We can amend a list by simply adding to it. A list is not an outline that requires rearrangement with each additional item. (If we want a carefully ordered sequence, we can simply renumber and then reorder.)
5. Generating new items.
While creating a list, a new item can act as a retrieval cue for another item. Each new item on a list can encourage memory for another important item.
Lists convey a lot of information in relatively few words. Lists are concise and orderly distillations—small and digestible, like tapas.
With complicated subjects such as nutrition, health, music, or dating, thematic lists impose a simple structure on complexity. Such lists provide quick and focused reading. And if we want to find out more, we can access information by following the links.
7. Lending a sense of accomplishment.
Completing items on to-do lists provides satisfaction, allowing us to see what we’ve done. Without a list, once we’ve done something, we don’t need to remember it anymore, so we forget what we've accomplished.
Lists can help with decision-making. Listing the reasons for and the reasons against a particular option allows us to perceive the decision all at once, without having to keep in mind the entire jumble of reasons. Even with more sophisticated approaches, the most effective aid for complex decisions is still two lists: pros and cons.
9. Breaking habits.
We don’t need to list what we habitually do. We leave items off our grocery lists that we always buy. However, if we have a habit we want to reduce or eliminate, then a “Not-to-Do” list is helpful. Many New Year’s resolutions include behaviors not to do. For me recently: Do not get distracted by news notifications; do not eat crackers at the computer.
10. Saving time.
Lists are easy to write and efficient to read. There’s no need for complex sentences or paragraphs. Important points can be written and identified quickly, especially compared to blocks of text.
The most popular type of article on news platforms is the listicle—an essay in the form of a list, with each item accompanied by a brief description. Often these are self-help articles, with a series of observations on how to achieve a goal. And if the number of items is in the title, then we know beforehand how much time and cognitive energy we will need to devote to the article.
Note 1. The sequence and the wording of the Ten Commandments vary across different traditions within Judaism and Christianity.