On Collecting Lists (And Other Fairly Useless Obsessions)

Collage of three lists: a "Radio Playlist" spreadsheet, a "My Strange Passions" in a book, a "Top 5 Holidays" in a small notebook
Lists through the ages, photo collage by the author.

I’ve had a difficult time getting started on an article this week. Whenever I opened my computer, another far more fascinating task called to me: no, not social media, either. Making an annotated list of every song played on various local radio stations, of course.

I used to do this when I was a teenager, too, except then it was more difficult and less useful. I had a notebook I’d keep at my side all day, whatever else I was doing, and every time a song started on the radio, I’d write it down. Then I’d go through and rate each song using a combination of numbers and highlighter pen colors. Nowadays, I can find the recently-played lists of most radio stations online and just copy them into a spreadsheet. Then I can rate them using a combination of numbers and cell colors, but I can ALSO sort them by title, artist, rating, year, etc, and get a full picture of how often stations repeat songs, how balanced their collections are, and how often they actually play songs I love, so it’s really a much more practical hobby now than it was when I was a teenager.*

I really don’t know why I find it so satisfying to make lists. I touched on this a couple of years ago when I wrote about the irony of being a complete slob and an organizing geek at the same time. But I’ve thought of a better word to use than “organizing.” “Organizing” does imply some level of anti-clutter that is out of my ADHDed** reach. What I like to do is curating. Collecting and cataloging. An organizer might come in and, gasp, sort all the books on the shelf by size or color so that the shelves look neat, without paying the slightest attention to what the book is actually about. A curator doesn’t sort to make things neat, they sort to have proper records of things.

My sister and I had a just-after-bedtime routine in the room we shared growing up: Top Five Lists. We’d take a random topic—say “Top 5 Desserts,” “Top 5 Recurring Segments on Animaniacs,” “Top 5 Lists We Already Made,” whatever—and each name our picks, and I’d write them all down in a little notebook I kept for just that purpose. I still have that.*** It’s an interesting snapshot in time.

When I see someone else’s list of the “Top 100 Whatevers,” I feel compelled to, if not write my own, at least annotate each entry with my own opinions and what I think of the ranking. Once, when a local radio station was playing their “Top 500 as Voted By You” countdown, I printed out the list, cut out each individual song, and resorted them all by hand as I felt they should go.****

In college in the late 1990s, a lot of my friends made personal webpages on GeoCities. These were basically collections of random things they liked. Curated bits of them. It was totally my thing, but I didn’t have time and regular-enough internet access to make my own, so I basically made my own analog GeoCities site in a spiral-bound journal with tabs I stuck in myself. I still have that, too—which most likely can’t be said for my peers’ GeoCities pages. A curated collection of everything I loved and hated in college!

Close up of the tabs of the journal described in the above paragraph
Analog tabs, photo by author.

In 2005 I started a LiveJournal, which is much easier to edit than a Geocities page, anyway, and it wasn’t long before I realized this was a great place to store lists of my favorite things and respond to other people’s lists, too. I had also had, as mentioned in the “organizing geek” post, a whole annotated list of All the Books I’ve Ever Read on a website that is now defunct, though I’ve transferred it to a spreadsheet. Which, by the way, I’ve forgotten to update for two years. Which is a frequent issue with me and my information curating projects: I hyperfocus until I suddenly stop, leaving a collection that can’t really serve whatever purpose I’d intended it to in the first place.

I have two Scrivener projects devoted to endless curative tasks that I keep forgetting about, then returning to in spare moments, that may turn out to be moderately useful once I actually complete them. The more useful of the two is a recipe index that not only holds recipes I’ve found online but includes names and ingredients —and page numbers— of all the recipes in my cookbooks—or will eventually at any rate. Then I’ll be able to search by ingredient or browse by cooking method or cuisine or however many other variables I want to add! I do actually use it already to find the recipes that aren’t in cookbooks with their own indexes, since I definitely put those recipes into it before the others. But I still have to remember which cookbook the other recipes are in, and maybe someday I’ll have that in my database, too.

The other is a collection of all the dreams I’ve jotted down in my journal in the mornings or informed friends of on social media or et cetera. Once I get all those dreams in the same database, I’ll be able not only to find specific dreams quickly but I’ll be able to sort them and see the frequency of various themes and symbols, and that will just be interesting. Even if I am the only person who thinks so.

That’s not to say that all my list-curating is incomplete and trivial. Curation is a vital part of librarianship, my career. I’m always putting together book lists and running reports of circulation stats, and I get paid to do so! Granted, I often make lists that aren’t particularly necessary, but I still find uses for them. Even at home, my compulsion to annotate lists can lead to real insights. Here’s me going through a list of autistic traits in females to see exactly what and how each trait applied and did not apply to me. It was good to lay out exactly what was and was not true for me, and noting the how of each trait really cleared things up when I learned more about ADHD and discovered that, though there’s a lot of overlap with autism, my symptoms are clearly ADHD-caused, instead.

Which leads us probably to the point. My brain requires lists to focus: to-do lists. In the “Top Five Lists” notebook, I found another list that my sister had nothing to do with: “Things to accomplish this summer.” I don’t know how well I did—I know I eventually finished that journal entry, which, if I recall correctly, was actually my Entire Life Story Until That Point (the summer after ninth grade), but I never did get far with the Band Stories. But I see that bit of yelling at myself: “STOP DREAMING! Time to get your priorities straight!” Ah, yes, the frustration of undiagnosed Inattentive-Type ADHD! The thing about to-do lists is they lay everything out in front of you so you can see it, which has always helped my brain work (see also the footnote below about term paper writing). Writing things down has always been, for me, like a Pensieve from Harry Potter—if you take the pertinent thoughts out of your head to look at, you can sort through and understand them better. Perhaps that’s what the curating-information obsession comes down to: sorting my brain out. A lot of my brain happens to be preoccupied with opinions on what the radio’s playing. Maybe writing it out is like an exorcism. It takes control of those thoughts, puts them into a manageable format.

Or maybe it’s just pointless fun. I may never know for sure. Because no matter how nonsensical my prefrontal cortex may find it, the rest of my brain keeps insisting I really do need it.

Screenshot of current to-do lists paired with page from small notebook with a teenaged to-do list
I had a much shorter to-do list as a teenager, yet still apparently had trouble prioritizing and focusing. Photo collage by author.

*But of all the weird little journals and notebooks I’ve saved over the years (see below if you’re reading this footnote in the order it appears in the article, see above if you’ve saved all the footnotes until the end), I cannot find this one, which marginally upsets me.

**Being that it’s still ADHD Awareness Month, this seems like a good opportunity to remind the uninitiated that ADHD, despite its name, is not actually a DEFICIT of attention, but an inability to REGULATE attention. Which results in a lot of seemingly random hyperfocusing on tasks like, say, making lists of all the songs on the radio when you should actually be focusing on writing an article or making supper.

***See what I mean? Anyway, looking at these lists now, I’m going to have to point out that the best list is definitely “Top Five Words in [the Beatles’] ‘Drive My Car’.” This is necessary information!

****I should note that I’m a bit of a kinesthetic and visual learner. I used to edit term papers the same way: cutting them up and spreading them all over the floor so I could physically see every point and put it where it worked best. Once in college I partnered up with two other girls, and the one did the exact same thing, and we were both overjoyed to discover this. Whereas the other girl thought we were nuts. Looking back, I’m pretty sure we were both ADHD, which accounts for the needing-to-see-everything-spread-out-at-once-so-you-don’t-forget-what-you-just-read methods, but at the time we were just excited to find somebody else who got it.

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