On being ... listless

By Ingrid Sapona

The end of the year means different things to different people. For many, it’s a time to make resolutions. (I had to laugh when one friend commented that this year she has resolved to not make losing “the same 15 pounds” one of her resolutions.) For others, it’s a time to look back at their year and take stock in what’s transpired.

For newspapers and other media, the year end seems to mean endless lists. Lists of the year’s (or, decade’s) biggest, best, worst, and funniest whatever fill the pages and airwaves. Personally, I find this tradition a waste of newsprint, ink, airtime, and my time. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to ignore such “news”, so that’s what I do when I’m alone.

But, at Christmas I’m lucky enough to spend time with my family, and my sister loves year end lists. Loves them. And, because one of our quirky family habits is to read news stories to each other over breakfast, she inevitably wants to share her enthusiasm for such lists. Finally, the other day, in a thinly veiled attempt to get her to stop reading me one such story, I asked her why she seems to find those lists so fascinating.

Rather than answer the question, she went off on a tangent about how much she likes making lists because they help her organize and prioritize. When I told her I make lists for the same reason, she seemed surprised. She then admitted that one of the main reasons she makes lists is because she gets a lot of satisfaction from checking things off when she’s completed them. As she said this, she made an invisible check mark in the air with her hand and then said, “I just love looking at my list and seeing all the little check marks for things that I’ve finished.”

Though I get a sense of accomplishment when I complete something on my “to do” list, for me the thrill is short-lived. Her hand gesture drove home a subtle, but important difference in our list keeping method -- and outlook. Instead of putting a check mark next to an item, I cross it off. So, the next time I look at the list, rather than counting check marks and feeling good about all I’ve done, I see all the things I still need to do. It’s kind of a glass half empty/half full thing, I guess. Maybe I should switch to check marks….

Actually, in thinking about it, I realized that her use of check marks is really just a means of giving herself positive reinforcement, which she’s really into. Indeed, just last week I witnessed another very endearing example of her use of positive reinforcement. There was a geography quiz in the paper (a slow news day, I guess) and so we decided to test our knowledge. Before she began reading the questions aloud, she drew columns on a piece of paper, putting one name at the top of each column.

She recorded our answers and when we were done, she scored us. Then, holding up the sheet, she enthused: “look how many stars there are!” I couldn’t help laugh when I looked at the paper and saw little stars next to each correct answer. I, on the other hand, probably would have put a little tick mark next to the ones we got wrong and counted them instead. See what I mean about half empty and half full?

So, after she explained about how much she loves checking off items on lists, I pressed her further regarding what it is about year end lists that she finds so appealing. One of the reasons she enjoys them, she said, is because they’re a quick way of reviewing the year. I’ll grant her that with respect to lists of news events, but I know those aren’t even the types of lists she likes best.

Her favourites are those that rank things (like books that were on the best seller list longest, the year’s top grossing movies, critics’ top picks, etc.). She especially enjoys these lists, she says, because she likes to see whether she agrees with the ranking. I, on the other hand, couldn’t care less how something ranks based on some random measure or some other person (or organization’s) opinion.

Anyway, a day or so ago, when I mentioned it was time for me to be thinking about a topic for On being … , my sister immediately suggested I write about lists. Before I could say anything, she smiled and said, “I know, you hate lists!” I was surprised she realized this because she’s certainly never let on that she knew I didn’t like them, nor has it ever stopped her from enthusiastically discussing them. Then she started laughing and said, “Yeah, you could call it ‘On being … listless’.”

Besides finding her suggestion delightfully funny, I was tremendously moved by it. Her witty, on point title showed me that she truly “gets” that, besides my interest in coming up with a thought-provoking or clever title, my true aim with On being … is to show how even seemingly insignificant things like check marks on a list can impact our outlook.

Happy New Year to you all, and may your 2011 list of hopes, dreams, goals, and achievements be check mark-filled!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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