Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Much Ado About To-Do Lists

Poet Robert Frost said there is something about a fence.

We, lawyers, could say the same things about lists.

Oh, how we love our lists. They bring order to our days. They keep us on track.

And few things are more satisfying than striking a completed item off our to-do list – nor more deflating than adding more items to a list that is already out of control.

Why Lawyers Love Lists

Where would we be without lists?

Lost, apparently.

That’s according to the latest research on how our brains function.

“[L]ists tap into our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level,” writes science author Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker. “[F]rom an information-processing standpoint, they often hit our attentional sweet spot. When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.”

Lawyers are hot-wired for lists.

It’s because we tend to place information in categories. We draft complaints that contain separate causes of action, each of which are supported by specific allegations of fact. We organize our cases by party and subject matter. We proceed from topic to topic in oral arguments.

Scannability is Key for Online Info

But lists hold a deeper psychological appeal. Konnikova cites a 2011 study on the paradox of choice – “the phenomenon that the more options we have, the worse we feel” – where researchers concluded that the easier it is to process information, the happier we are.

And what can be better for summarizing complex concepts than a simple little list?

“[T]he faster we decide on something, whether it’s what we’re going to eat or what we’re going to read, the happier we become,” according to Konnikova. “Within the context of a Web page or Facebook stream, with their many choices, a list is the easy pick, in part because it promises a definite ending: we think we know what we’re in for, and the certainty is both alluring and reassuring. The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it.”

This is why so many articles online are presented in list form (“6 Ways to Reduce Your Waistline,” “3 Steps to a Million Dollar Income”). Our brains can wrap around a specific number of salient points, whereas a detailed discussion in narrative form might be overwhelming.

Tips for Making Lists

Here are five suggestions for successful list-making:

  1. Keep them manageable. A daily to-do list with dozens of items marked “urgent” can lead to paralysis. Pare your lists down to a few doable tasks.
  2. Make lists for clients. Prepare lists of documents to gather, tasks to accomplish and goals to be achieved. This will help keep your client-focused and it might cut down on anxious phone calls.
  3. Give your staff lists. This provides accountability and helps manage workflow.
  4. Use bullet points in Web content and PowerPoint presentations. The simpler the better. Pictures help.
  5. Be flexible. What is true for the best-laid plans is also true for the best-made lists. Stuff happens. We get side-tracked and diverted. Our lists get longer instead of shorter. No worries: keep plowing ahead.

And go easy on yourself. So what if you don’t make it past the first item on your daily list? There’s always tomorrow – and new lists to be made.

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact, phone 919-619-2441.


Source: The New Yorker

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

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