The Power of Lists: Getting More Creative and Efficient

Photo: Lisa Clarke

Efficiency and creativity aren’t two qualities that typically go hand in hand. You never picture the creative genius going, "I'll spend five more minutes on this idea because I need to get started on the next project."

So what’s the best way to become more efficient and more creative? Read a bunch of books? Take some classes? Spend a whole bunch of money?

I have a much simpler solution — create a list.

Here are two techniques that can help you get things done faster and come up with great ideas, whether you work in a creative field or not. (See also: Solve Problems, Study, and Brainstorm Using Mind Maps)

Becoming More Efficient

I’m horrible at remembering things — I must’ve been dropped on my head as a baby, as a young boy, and a few times as an adult. My memory just plain sucks.

I used to spend a lot of my time at work and at home trying to remember things. Errands, article ideas, putting on my pants before I leave the house, etc. It’s really bad.

But after reading a piece in the New Yorker about the power of checklists, I had one of those "aha" moments — a list was my way around my memory problems! If a simple checklist can help doctors improve their patient care and save lives, then I can surely use that same strategy to remember where I left my shoes.

The concept is simple — you’re offloading the responsibility of remembering to a sheet of paper. Spend a decent amount of time on the checklist, and the next time you need to do a project or complete a task, you just follow the checklist to make sure you completed all the steps.

So as a freelance writer it could be things like:

  • Great headline
  • SEO-friendly headline and keywords
  • Some humor
  • Something interesting/useful
  • Strong voice

Sounds silly, but once you sit down to write (or do anything), this isn’t the stuff you want to be focusing on. We forget about it.

I’ve used checklists at work, and they’ve made my life a lot easier. Once you find the fastest way to complete a task, write it down as a checklist. Then, next time you can just run through it and be done instead of agonizing over how to go about it. Again.

Checklists are like the crumbs of bread that you leave behind for the next time so you'll find your way faster. That’s efficiency.

Creativity and Good Ideas

A lot of people think that being creative is simply in your blood. These people wake up in the morning and write a three-act play on their way to the shower.

Those people do exist (I hate you all), but that’s not how most people come up with great ideas. This is something we’re all capable of — we just have to put in a little bit of work to get there.

If you really want to see how creative you can be, you’re going to have to do some digging. Don’t expect to sit down with a sheet of paper, spend a few minutes thinking, and then boom — you’ll hit on a great idea that will be brilliant. Not gonna happen.

Instead, try this tip from the copywriting world — come up with a list of 100.

Wait — 100 ideas??!!

Yup, that’s right. This will force you to do a few things:

  • Churn out a bunch of ideas
  • Turn off your inner editor that’s constantly telling you an idea is dumb
  • Force your brain to keep working, to keep digging, to keep churning and coming up with more and more ideas until you hit 100

The first few ideas will be pretty predictable. But then you’ll hit a wall. You’ll want to quit. You’ll think it’s a dumb idea to sit down and write 100 ideas down. You’ll think I’m an idiot that can’t remember squat. Which is true, but give it a chance.

Once you’re done, you’ll have 100 ideas to choose the very best from. This is a concept a photographer once told me about — in order to get an amazing picture, you have to take a whole bunch of crappy ones.

Your brain has pushed through a few walls and taken you into some random places to keep coming up with ideas. You’ve managed to shut off your lizard brain and open up your mind to the possibility of new, different, creative ideas. Some of them will suck. Some will be OK. What you’re hoping for is to review the list later on and fall in love with one or two of them.

Welcome to the creative process.

Even if you're not a writer, this is a technique you can use. You can come up with lists of ways to make your company more efficient, new products/services your company should start selling, etc. Anything new can be born this way.

Now get a sheet of paper, and start getting more efficient and creative.

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The Power of Lists

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Meg Favreau's picture

I'm a big fan of to-do lists, but I never think about making checklists. I'll have to try that.