By the end of every December, I couldn’t be more saturated with lists: Top Ten Albums of the Year, Worst Political Moments of 2011, A Look Back at the Best (and Worst) Television Shows of the Season. But the lists don’t stop on January 1. We scrawl our bulleted resolutions in diaries, listing our personal promises onto post-it notes stuck on bathroom mirrors. No longer satisfied with analog methods, I take it a step further; my phone bursts with apps designed to manage lists, daily tasks to accomplish, often duplicated information from a scrap of paper lying on my desk at home. It is downright inescapable — in fact, one item on my list of New Year’s resolutions is to stop making so many lists.
For a time, lists were primarily made for trips to the store. But it seems the more supposed time-saving devices we have in our lives — cell phones, laptops, apps — the more lists we create to manage said time. “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature,” Umberto Eco said in an interview about his book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. “What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” Commandments, amendments and rules show our devotion to succinctly itemizing important guidelines in an easily-digestible format.
Over the years, the list format has been usurped, reflecting a society that requires information to be as quickly digestible as possible. “A list — especially one that ranks or categorizes — can be a salve for the anxiety of living in an era of information overload,” writes design historian Alice Twemlow. “But the relief is short-lived; soon the accumulated lists begin to add to the overload themselves.” It’s only gotten worse in the last decade; word processing software and the Internet brazenly encouraged our listing habits. Yet even with these countless digital aids, the satisfaction of drawing a line through an item on my list is the ultimate in signaling personal achievement and progress. The next time you feel like you’re drowning in bullet points, firmly grasp a fine-tipped pen and banish each task with a nice, broad stroke.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.