Be Gretchen. Make Strange Lists, For Fun.

One of my idiosyncrasies is my love of taking notes, copying quotations, making odd lists, gathering examples in various categories, and the like. I used to fight this impulse, because I considered it a waste of time, but now I allow myself to take notes without a purposeBe Gretchen.

For example, I made this list of what public-art installations, based on classics of children’s literature, I would put in New York City. (I was inspired by the luggage trolley halfway through a brick wall at London’s King’s Cross station.)

Here’s the list I made today. It’s a list of my favorite two-word phrases that I have actually used in conversation:
— scintillating scotoma
— intangible hereditable
— mystical pigs
— spasmodic Hercules (from a quotation from Trollope)

Do you ever take notes without a purpose, or make lists like this? Or have any favorite two-word phrases yourself?

* I just heard last night that The Happiness Project will be #1 on the New York Times list for the third week in a row! Hooray! If that piques your interest…
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

  •  I also like lists.  They ground me.  One of my favorite lists is something that I do when I have traveled to a new country or city.  I make a list of the 25 things I remember most about the place.  I love reading back over these.

    • sprite

      What an awesome idea!

      • gretchenrubin

        Making lists are great memory prompts. Fast to write, satisfying, and really
        help to make memories vivid.

    • Stella

      Great idea! I think I will start doing this for inclusion in my scrapbooks! 

    • spase

      same here! i list all the funny/memorable/inside joke moments of trips 🙂

  • Betty

    I have a book in which I write down quotes from movies/tv/songs, things that make me smile, things I want to do or find out about or just interesting things I have heard and seen as well as lists of all sorts of things. It has very little order to it, except the fact that I have recorded it in the compendium of my life. It helps me remember good things 🙂

  • I am fond of “sagacious derriere,” perhaps because I am one.

  •  I make detailed patterns for things I know I am never going to make.  Why not? Let me be me.

    • gretchenrubin

      There’s great satisfaction in that initial stage.

  • photopoppy

    I’ve been meaning to comment on one of your posts to ask what kind of books you use for collecting lists and quotations… would you mind sharing?

    • photopoppy

      Ah. nevermind… I clicked through to the post on taking notes for fun and read that you use the computer instead of a notebook. Answered my own question!

    • gretchenrubin

      I have terrible handwriting, and I rarely stir without my laptop, so I keep
      all my notes in my laptop. I have various documents, plus my main notes
      document is called “Categories” (can’t remember why). I throw everything in
      there, and find what I need through word search or serendipity.

  • Christine M. Boyer

    I like lists. They can be fun, useful and powerful.  

    In her book, Write It Down, Make It Happen, Henriette Klauser talks about the power of making lists. She says writing it down is about clearing your head and setting your intentions.

    I’m combining principles from your book and hers lately, and it’s been interesting.

  • I love the idea of strange lists.  I tend to write random thought I want to hold onto for a moment.  I stick them on post-its in various places.  Next time I look if the thought is still progressing I keep it, if not, bye-bye post-it. 

  • JaninOC

    I love making lists! Lists of  home projects – some realistic and some dreams, lists of my favorite destinations, lists of my favorite movies, etc. It is interesting to me to go back over time and see what I wrote down and if my tastes or desires have changed. Also, I love to find a old list of goals or projects and see how many I have accomplished. Your two-word phrase list is giving me a new direction to go in. Thanks! 

  • I have a notebook that I keep in my purse with short story titles and themes, ideas for freelance columns and unusual decor ideas for my house.

  • Lists and lists and lists of lists. Goals, dreams, cakes.

    My favourite current list is “untranslateables” from English into French (since I am currently living in Paris). I like working out what cultural concepts are missing and why. French people don’t really say “cheap”, they prefer “not expensive”.

    I hope to still have my books of listlets when I am eighty. Or does it matter? Is it enough just to have that flash of inspiration on paper?

    (Inspired by you, I have been thinking about my simple pleasures recently. The bare essentials. I never realised greenery/nature was one of them until I had to write them down. So thank-you!)

    • gretchenrubin

      I have a list similar to that! — like wabi-sabi — there’s no word for it
      in English, but it perfectly describes something.

      • Maryl

        Love lists, quotes, words!    Do you know Le Mot Juste?  A great little paperback compilation of classical and foreign words and phrases.  I just ordered more copies for graduation gifts.

      • GS

        I heard of a designer who coined an English word for wabi-sabi — “shabbalism” –combination of shabby and minimalism.

        I have my own word as well for the ideas of “seasoned” and “simple”  at the root of wabi-sabi: “Rustyc”  (combination of rusty and rustic.)  

    • GS

      I like that list of “untranslateables”! It is nice to have that sort of quirky list in addition to the usual list of “faves” and “goals/things-to-do.”

      Here’s an untranslateable I got from a Tamil friend. Apparently, Tamil has an insulting term, “saavu graaki,” which literally means “Death Customer” for someone who does something outstandingly stupid, like “buying death” from the god of Death. The term is used for an act that is so stupid it puts the person who commits it and everyone else around them in mortal danger (like running a red light.)

      It’s interesting that English does not have words for degrees of stupidity. We use “stupidity” “idiocy” etc as synonyms, but other languages have these granular concepts of dumbness.

  • Nadine

    I love lists.  Lists of things that make me happy, fun things I’ve done with my family, places I want to visit, things I want/need to do, Children’s books I want to read or have read.  Incidentally have you read The  Emerald Atlas? by John Stephens…it also in audio book read by Jim Dale.

    • gretchenrubin

      No, I haven’t read that — will check it out.

  • I tend to make more of these odd lists in my head, but maybe I should put more of them on paper. Would make some neat scrapbook pages. My husband, daughter and I did a list when we were at Disney World when she was in Kindergarten, Disney A to Z, which was fun.

  • jenny_o

    I collect quotes that I enjoy, but I think now that I’m ready to expand my list-making and really enjoy it without feeling it is a waste of time.  

  • Ann

     I like lists, but I keep the more practical “There! I can cross that off” type.  My mother died last month and, in her personal papers, I found notes and quotes she had carefully written out.  Poems and Bible verses.  It was very sweet to read things that meant enough to her that she took the time to write them down.  Lovely.  

    • Debora

       I keep a day book where I write things down that I come across.  Lots of Gretchen’s Moments of Happiness end up there!  When I go back and re-read my pages sometimes, I am intrigued and renewed by what I have noted there.

  • I scribble lists down for everything! It gets me focusing on something for just a few minutes without needing too much time in one sitting.

  • I usually take a note of what I am reading and doing and when i look into it after some time i recall what i read and make changes regarding it.

  • Yes I make lists or notes that I don’t have to also!  It’s probably why I don’t mind note-taking in class, haha!  Nice post, and I like your list!  I can’t believe you managed to use them in conversations though, sounds like it would be tricky!

  • I always try to think on paper. If it is something important get it down on a paper, it might turn out it isn’t important but I find it a lot easier to think and draw conclussions when I am looking at my ideas.

  • You must love the Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon.  Right up your alley.

    • gretchenrubin

      YES! You’re so right. In fact, I JUST pulled that off my shelf to re-read. I
      loooove that book.

  • Stella

    I have to attend a lot of seminars. Sometimes, if I am boreda, I end up making lists while at a seminar. I make random lists – like favorite this or that, books I read this year, books to read, favorite movies, places I’d like to visit, to do lists, long term goals, anything like that. I LOOOVE LISTS! 

  • Kathy

    Another great use for lists:  When I can’t sleep, I think of a list of the 5 things from the day I’m most grateful for, or the things that were in my childhood bedroom, or new quilts I want to make.  The lists calm my mind and soon I’m sound asleep. 
    Also, I have kept a journal now for over 20 years – I write daily.  I love rereading them for insights. The journals contain lists, too.

  • I love writings lists, especially to-do-lists but of course I have so many other lists and they all find a place in one of my journals. I have journals specifically for this purpose so I can organize everything according to categories. It really helps when you have a blog. I have lists for every area of my life, blog post ideas, recipes, books to read, artists to research, things to get done, creative things to do, and of course one for research.  And I can’t stop buying more of these journals because I always find other lists to make.

    It helps somehow. I find that when you write things down you always have something to look forward to. Although, just writing a list on its own can make me happy.  Without one I would never get anything done.

  • Maria Angelica Paz Garcia Piza

     I love to list, like things that I’m grateful for, some sort of gratitude journal maybe, or list of positive affirmations, or list of healthy snacks that I could eat at work (that’s my last one). I’m carrying a small notebook in my purse where I make list, or make notes of random things, specially things that I like or things that I would like to do or places that I would love to visit, etc.

  • Laura

    I love lists!  Sometimes the thrill is in the creation of the list alone. I do lists for things to buy, to read, to explore, to do – even things to think about when I have time.

  • Grace

    This is off topic but… my teenage daughter and I were just in London and she wanted to see Platform 9 3/4. We found it but it looked nothing like the picture in Gretchen’s link above. In fact, it was merely a wallpaper-ish vinyl brick wall. The luggage trolley was indeed stuck in the wall, so we did get some fun shots, but still I was disappointed… Anyone have any intelligence on this?

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, I’ve never seen it in person! Too bad if it doesn’t look the way it does
      in the photo. So fabulous.

  • HistoryBuff

    I like to write down quotes too Gretchen!
    One Christmas, I compiled some of my favorites, had a printing  company put them in a little book, and gave them out as Christmas gifts! It seems like this gift is one that all of the recipients have kept over the years.  

  • Whenever I read books that I love I take notes.  Often for no reason, but the notes do help me absorb the important messages better and remember them longer.  You can tell I really like a book by the number of notes I take.  You should see my notes from The Happiness Project 😉
    Have a wonderful weekend!

  • Catseye

    I’m a big list maker, have been since I was a teenager.  For many years the lists were mostly practical “to-do” lists but for the last 10 years or so, I’ve begun writing down quotes, thoughts, dreams, fantasies, etc.  And I’ve always made lists of books I’d like to read. 
    I have a list category that I call “Brilliant Observations”, “Why not?”, “Whatever”, “Bits and Pieces”, etc.  These consist of the odd, random ideas and questions that float through my mind. I think most people would find these lists pretty strange!   

  • Spacedad2

    My ex-wife made fun of me whenever she saw me making a list. I stopped, and became less “me.”

  • actuary

    I had a flittering scotoma as a side effect of medicine. So scary. I called the doctor immediately. 

  • Wordsculpter

    Recently, feeling like everything was falling apart, and that I was living on the wrong end of the happiness spectrum, I realized that life had taken me out of my routines.  And I learned long ago that routines help reduce stress and depression.
         So I made a list of my before and after routines (before source of derailment) on one whiteboard–it was too small. Then I made another list of the routines I want and/or need now on a different whiteboard. Just doing it helped me over the hurdle. Now I’m gradually integrating those routines back into my life.
         Routines you can count on are integral to happiness–at least mine!!

  • Paola Nombrado

    Wow! I actually find this interesting! I’ll definitely buy your book! More power! 🙂

  • Jeanne

    I too love lists and if I go to the grocery w/o one, I am done for. I love that you unapologetically put people into categories and run the risk of being chastised for lumping people and not recognizing uniqueness. Of course we’re unique, but we do follow similar behavior patterns sometimes. Some fun categorizing I’ve come across – There are two kinds of people – those who categorize people and those who don’t, and There are two kinds of people – people who wear purple and people who don’t.

  • Jeanne

    OOPS, almost forgot, my latest fun list. All last year I kept a running list of all the sayings my Mom used when we were growing up (and still uses). Like – “You’ll live,” He ought to have his head examined,” and “That needs a good throwin’ away.” When ever I thought of one, I wrote it down on the list. There were well over 50 of them! Sayings were my mom’s thing. I made her Mother’s Day card this year out of all the sayings. She LOVED it!

  • Additcted to Lists

    I am such a list addict that my husband teases me that I need a list of my lists. I too make random lists of things that I may never need or use, I just get an overwhelming urge to jot it down. I once worked in an office that I enjoyed so much due to the humor and good nature of the entire staff, that I started a list titled “over heard in the office”. Because we all worked in cubicals in one open room we would just call out to each other and the things that were said were hilarious, of course, the fact that we all shared one email box for all the employees, who all received jokes from friends made it that much more fun. Even the 3 owners were in on it, they were the funniest ones! Ah, the good old days!
    I got to go make a list! Thanks Gretch!