I’ve got a little list

I make lists.

Many people make lists, of course. Lists are handy things to have if you’re trying to be organized; you can look at them to make sure you’re not forgetting anything, you can check things off of them as they get finished and thereby win a quick burst of feeling accomplished, etc. Useful things, lists.

Except the way I make them.

Because the vast majority of the time, when I make a list (say, “papers I need to finish writing” or “things that want doing before I leave the country for several weeks” or “bills yet to be paid”… I do this a lot, actually) I’ll put time and some mental effort into drawing it up, look at it briefly with satisfaction, and then never glance at it ever again. (Or if I do, it’s several months later and I have to puzzle over my abbreviations a lot.) The things on those lists often get done, though by no means do they always get done, and particularly not in a timely manner.

So why do I bother? Best reason I can come up with is that writing lists down is like writing sums down. I can do arithmetic in my head, with an ease that cows and distresses many of my students, but keeping track of all the details of a calculation of moderate complexity is harder work than I (as a mathematician, and therefore lazy by definition) generally want to deal with. Thus, putting it on paper organizes things in my brain as well as on the page. And once they’re fixed in the mind, why do I need the physical representation?

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