Scared, overwhelmed, unsure? Make a list.

I married the first man I met in Bukittinggi, Sumatra. Not right away, of course. First, I rode on the back of his motorbike where I got to know and trust him. I met his kind and welcoming family, we learned more of each other’s languages, and we traveled to other islands where he protected me from land pirates and the impossibly tiny bones in my small fried fish. Then, almost a year to the day after I asked him a question on a street corner, we were kneeling next to each other on an elaborate green carpet hearing our vows echo in the vast open space of the local mosque.

When I tell the longer version of this story, people invariably tell me how brave I am. How I must have so much courage to not only travel by myself to the other side of the world, but to commit to spend my life with someone I met there. But, from sitting on that green carpet through every day since, it has always seemed like the most rational and natural decision I could have made. And I attribute that at least in part to the power of lists.

Lists helped get me to Indonesia to begin with.

It was 1999 and I had been thinking of going to India and Southeast Asia for ten years, originally inspired by a freshman seminar on Asian architecture. The first challenge was money. It took me a long time to save up. But once I did, the remaining obstacles were harder to define and, therefore, overcome, as were the steps I should take to actually go.

But, from sitting on that green carpet through every day since, it has always seemed like the most rational and natural decision I could have made. And I attribute that at least in part to the power of lists.

Ultimately, I realized that fear was the biggest factor. Fear of what might happen to me there and what I might miss from my life here, fear of loneliness, fear of what my family would say, and fear about the logistics of how to pull it off.

After stewing about this for months, I decided to tackle it like I would a work-related problem. I got a flip chart and started writing two lists – the problems I had to solve and the aspirational goals I wanted to achieve – and stuck the pages on my bedroom wall.

Both the problems and goals were overwhelming at the beginning. But next to each I slowly started finding answers. For example, on the problem sheet – what if I get lonely? Take a solo test trip to see. So I went hiking in Southern Utah and loved it. On the goals sheet – how can I make this purposeful self-development and not an extended vacation? Stay engaged in my field. So I got a gig teaching web design in India for the first month and put together a list of web design start-ups and their founders to go visit and interview afterwards. Then one by one, that dense fog of undefined fears became discrete problems with solutions or goals with steps to achieve them.

A couple of months later, I was on the plane to Delhi.

The beauty of lists is two-fold – first, they allow you to solve the rational, get it out of the way, and make space for the emotional to crystalize and flourish, for there lays the hardest and most interesting stuff. And second, lists can be combined, contrasted, overlapped, and intersected to produce infinitely interesting, unexpected, and inspiring results.

Lists are regularly my saviors for overcoming tough work-related challenges. Listing problems and goals, prioritizing them, and looking for the intersections and gaps between is a successful tool for solving most creative problems — I especially love starting with the “opportunities”and “threats”from a good SWOT analysis. Often to kickoff concepting I distill a creative brief into two lists, pulling out the most important words that summarize the problems and goals for the customer and the brand, then explore the space between them.

The beauty of lists is two-fold – first, they allow you to solve the rational, get it out of the way, and make space for the emotional to crystalize and flourish, for there lays the hardest and most interesting stuff. And second, lists can be combined, contrasted, overlapped, and intersected to produce infinitely interesting, unexpected, and inspiring results.

In writing too lists are my first step. For this article, as well as the ones that have come before and are yet to be written, I use lists to capture divergent thoughts. Lists of memories, experiences, beliefs, and questions. Lists of structural arrangements and stylistic techniques. Magically, lists both focus my swirling thoughts and, in their juxtapositions and gaps, converge to unleash new ideas and areas of inquiry.

In fact, one of my favorite brainstorming techniques for any type of creative pursuit is to combine divergent lists across multiple axes – steps along a customer journey, customers’emotional and functional needs, cultural and social influences, brand attributes, product benefits, different points of view, revealing quotes from qualitative research, interesting data points from quantitative research – and see what interesting, unexpected surprise might appear at the intersections. I’ve done this in large group sessions on a white board and sitting alone with a black sharpie and copier paper on my kitchen counter.

Lists can both help distill what is most essential and provide the inspiration to confidently progress forward.

When I called my parents from Bukittinggi to tell them that I was getting married, I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t just fearful about their possible reaction. I also felt sick in face of the magnitude of all of the other challenges before us. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about my parents – they told me they loved me, trusted me, and asked when they should come.

But they also asked us to make a list.

They wanted us to list all of the important aspects of life — work, children, family, religion, money, old age, and anything else we identified as important to us, and then write down what we thought about each of them to make sure we were on the same page. I rolled my eyes, but thought this work was the least we could do to assuage their fears.

Lists can both help distill what is most essential and provide the inspiration to confidently progress forward.

Later, we sat up nearly all night, discussed, debated, clarified, and documented. We carefully read over what we wrote in the morning, translated, tweaked, edited, and refined. Then I confidently pressed “send” to email our masterpiece thinking, “Boom! Take that.”

In the days that followed, however, I slowly came to understand the true value of this exercise. Creating this list was less about making the case to my parents that we knew what we are doing — it was more about making it to ourselves, allowing us to enter into the marriage with even more clarity and confidence than before.

With so much more consequential content to ponder, neither my parents nor I thought to ask my soon-to-be husband if he liked making lists too. Jumping right to simultaneous wedding and immigration planning, I quickly learned that he doesn’t. I make the lists for groceries, after school activities, vacation planning, savings goals, errands, home repairs, you name it. (I would cease functioning if it wasn’t for my Notes app.) Then I send him whatever excerpts he needs to know. And, in a true partnership, he excels at getting things done.

Plus, 17 years, two children, and life’s many ups and downs later, we still always agree on every detail of that first list we wrote together in Sumatra.

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