Most Western societies read from left to right and from top to bottom. As a result, we quite naturally assume that when it comes to lists of things, the most important ones come first. This has a profound but often ignored effect on how we go about building lists.
Most of us try to build lists in a single step.
When we do this, we are trying to do two things at once: create the list and determine the sequence. Task switching research tells us both these things will go poorly unless we take them one at a time. We constantly sidetrack and slow ourselves down by bouncing back and forth between identifying the steps and determining the sequence. We struggle to figure out the sequence before we have all the parts.
Here’s what works better.
Break the activity into two steps. First, identify what we can without importance or priority. A good way of thinking about it is as the difference between nominating candidates and voting on them.
When we have plenty of nominees, we should ask ourselves:
- Is our list comprehensive?
- Are there redundancies?
- Can we combine closely related items into categories?
- Do we need to pull other items apart into smaller components?
- Are we likely to quit too soon, saying we’ve done enough?
- How do we push beyond the easy, the apparent, and the obvious?
Then we should choose a conceptual framework.
What are some of the ways we organize lists? Alphabetical, chronological, top of mind, importance, and others. How about desired emphasis? Another way of sorting items in a list is by law. This we see on labels of packaged goods in grocery stores. Here the law is ingredients must be sequenced in declining order by the amount of each present.
What is always implied? The first is the most important. All of us have found ourselves in situations where we are following a set of instructions and find what needed to be done first was not first on the list, but buried somewhere in the middle.