The Two Lists

I believe in long-term note-taking. I think that there are certain kinds of notes that you should always have, and that a habit of logging your thoughts on a regular basis, in an organized way, is essential to personal progress.

Integrating organized note-taking into your daily life (and not just as something you do in response to specific and temporary situations) is the only way you can engage in certain kinds of development that I think are extremely healthy.

One of the development projects that’s only possible if you take notes in this way is The Great Big Lists of Stuff You Like and Stuff You Don’t Like.

All the time, you are presented with ideas. Almost instinctively, you embrace or reject them. These ideas can be small – a suggestion for a movie to watch – or very large, like the opportunity to move to a new city.

Whether you make your decision in an instant or you deliberate for a long time, you almost certainly embrace or reject the whole of the idea. But that misses a vital opportunity for self-development and learning.

You see, these aren’t really ideas or concepts you’re encountering, but bundles. Within those bundles are many discrete elements, and you’ll like some and dislike others. But you usually won’t think about it in that way – you’ll just accept or reject the whole thing.

Want an example? Someone suggests a movie to you. Based on what you’ve heard about it, you say “meh, no thanks.” You probably never give it another thought unless the other person is trying hard to convince you.

But let’s say you really wanted to examine your decision. You took out each discrete element of the movie, from its plot, to its genre, to the individual actors & actresses, to the writing team, to the studio… you get the idea. Make two lists – one of the discrete elements you like, and one of the discrete elements you didn’t.

This doesn’t have to change your decision! In most cases, it won’t. But what it does, is examines the decision. Imagine you did this for every movie that was suggested to you. After twenty suggestions (regardless of whether you said yes or no), you look at each list. Now patterns can emerge. You notice certain performers showing up a LOT on one list or the other, or patterns of plot elements that you never realized you disliked to much – or maybe genres that you did! The end result is that now you can seek out more of what you like, because you know why you like it. And you can spot red flags more easily, because you’ve dissected your gut instinct and can articulate what you truly don’t like.

That’s just for movies! But if you keep a list like this for just ideas in your life in general, you can do the same thing. You can evaluate anything in this way, from career options to romantic interests to hobbies to investments and on and on.

There are virtually no concepts that you will love or hate 100% of. Most things are “bundled.” If you don’t want to move to Austin, that’s fine – but there are probably at least a few things you would like about Austin, and maybe a few things you wouldn’t like but you hadn’t realized exactly. Make those lists, and now you can improve your future search.

The most important thing this does for you is it breaks the pattern of just saying “yes” or “no” to things that life randomly throws at you, and starts giving you the tools to proactively seek out the things you want. Imagine that after 20 movies, you looked at the list of things you liked and Paul Rudd’s name was on that list 20 times. You hadn’t even realized it, but you loved every movie he was in and even the movies you rejected, you put his name down as one of the positive elements. Now realizing this, you can have a delightful evening by just looking up Paul Rudd movies and taking your pick!

That’s a super-simple example, but the elements of this apply to much more complex decisions. We don’t often know why we like a particular city or hate a particular career field because no one ever asked us, not even ourselves.

Get in the habit of asking yourself, and making a list of the answers. You’ll be happy with what you learn.

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