I know that this is going to sound weird, but I never feel more in control than when I am compiling a list. There is something intensely satisfying about drawing little asterisks on paper and writing down stuff that I need to do in point form. As the words take shape on paper, every task appears do-able and every deadline seems a cinch. And no matter how many things I may have on my plate, I never get completely overwhelmed so long as they are neatly laid out in a list.
It wasn’t always like that. Lists were never my thing growing up. And even in college when they might have been useful as a means to induce some sense into my vast and ever-expanding reading list, I never resorted to drawing them up. Instead, with the cheerful insouciance of youth I muddled along as best I could, never bothering to mark my progress on a piece of paper.
My relationship with lists started with my entry into the world of journalism. As the junior-most person in the ranks, it fell upon me to do the most mind-numbingly boring tasks imaginable. And that meant compiling lists of anything and everything my editors could think of.
So, on any given day I would be struggling to scrabble together one Top Ten list or the other. It was pretty eclectic stuff. A list of top ten pop songs one week; top ten silent movie stars the next; the most memorable moments in India’s cricketing history the other. Sometimes I had to make this stuff up on my own. On other occasions, I had to call sundry celebrities to put together a list of their favourites.
It should have rendered me brain-dead within a couple of months. But guess what, I loved it. Even the most mundane request set my mind thinking about stuff that I hadn’t thought about for years. So, who was a better mystery writer? Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie? Which was the best Hindi movie of all time? Pyaasa or Sholay? Who was the better song writer? John Lennon or Paul McCartney?
This was great stuff and I was hooked. Soon, I was suggesting my own ideas for lists and sparking off furious debates in the office on every topic. As I climbed up the work ladder and became too senior to be assigned such lowly tasks, I fed my addiction by commissioning lists from those lower down the food chain.
Inevitably, this love for lists spilled over in my personal life as well. These days I find it impossible to go shopping – even for groceries – without compiling a list of all that I need to buy. I’m constantly scribbling things down as I remember them so that by the time I hit the shops I haven’t let anything slip through the cracks.
While lists are useful on the whole, I find them invaluable when it comes to planning a dinner party. Once I have written the menu down, I meticulously list all the ingredients that I need for every dish so that I know exactly what I need to buy. So far at least this has worked like a charm. I have never found myself short of basil or butter at a crucial phase in the cooking process or had to madly scramble around for a substitute.
That’s one reason why I’ve now started making lists of things to take when I’m packing for a holiday. It’s quite the best way to ensure that you have outfits to cover every possible occasion and shoes and bags to match.
But not only does listing things help me decide what to pack, it also tells me what I can safely leave behind. No, I don’t need more than one pair of jeans; the white linen shirt that requires ironing can be left behind; and black boots can do double duty in the evening as well so why bother with dressy sandals?
My love for lists hasn’t just made my life easier. It has benefited my friends as well. My favourite leisure activity these days is to compile playlists of my favourite songs which they can load on to their laptops or iPods. There are love songs for when they are feeling sentimental, fast tracks for working out at the gym, rock standards for easy listening in the car. I have a list for every occasion; a song for every mood.
And then, of course, there is my to-do list, which changes every week. Written in bold type with black ink on a yellow post-it, it has its own designated place on my computer screen. From its hallowed spot, it stares down at me as I type this, daring me to skip on any of the tasks listed on it.
But you know what, I don’t mind its tyrannical gaze in the least. It keeps me focused, it never allows me to forget anything I need to do, and it is a good way to track my progress through the week. And most importantly, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as ticking something off the list once I’m done with it. There really is no substitute for that sense of accomplishment. You really should try it.