Beware of lists

ListsIn the past month, I’ve had two face-palm moments that made me question the usefulness of lists. 

First, I forgot my passport on the way home from Paris after making a 30-item list of things to pack. Vitamins? Check. Shoes? Check. Cocoa powder? (an essential) Check. Passport? Whoops.

Then, I went to the doctor for an annual checkup and brought my handy list of questions. Yet as I returned to the waiting room, I realized I had forgotten the most important question of all. So I waited another half hour to speak to my doctor for five minutes.

In both cases, the lists failed me. Or maybe it was my brain’s fault?

According to a 2011 study, the Internet is making us remember less because Google becomes our crutch for finding information.

“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.”

I think the same principle is at work with lists. Without a list, my brain is doing some background processing as I walk out the door: “We may have forgotten something. What could it be?” Just after shutting the door, I might head back inside to retrieve a forgotten paper or jacket. But with a list, my brain becomes complacent. I expect the list to contain everything I need, so my brain doesn’t spontaneously surface relevant information.

Is the solution to make better lists? Maybe, if you have a foolproof way to ensure your list isn’t missing anything. You could add each item to your packing list as you take it out of your suitcase, but you might forget to add souvenirs or new clothes you buy. Yet I don’t want to sacrifice my lists, either.

In the future, I’ll try a hybrid approach: leaning on the list for the bulk of my memory, but pausing for a deliberate minute or so to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything else. And having wasted my time and missed a flight thanks to list-induced memory loss, it won’t just be a token pause but a real racking of my brain.

Photo by Flickr user Ex-Smith