I love lists. Always have. When I was 14, I wrote down every dirty word I knew on file cards and placed them in alphabetical order. I have a thing about collections, and a list is a collection with purpose.
Lists are how I parse and manage the world. I make lists for fun (I have more than 17,000 palindromes) and to relax (I can eliminate distractions and focus on what’s important). But mostly I make lists for projects. This can be daunting. Breaking something big into its constituent parts will help you organize your thoughts, but it can also force you to confront the depth of your ignorance and the hugeness of the task.
That’s OK. The project may be the lion, but the list is your whip.
The first thing I write down is whatever I hope to end up with — a Maltese Falcon, a Hellboy glove, or a map of all of Middle-earth (at the end of the Third Age, of course). That used to be the header in a notebook. Now it’s generally the name of a folder on my computer, and the list of tasks will be a series of subfolders and sub-subfolders.
When I want to build something, I’ll start collecting images, drawings, and information in the main folder. After a few weeks or months, I’ll parcel this raw info into subfolders. If I’m building a spacesuit, I’ll make separate subfolders for the helmet, gloves, boots, front control module, backpack, and so on. Unforeseen challenges — the checklists on the wrists of NASA’s Apollo-era suits, for instance — will get even more subfolders.
Eventually I’ll create a folder called "Adam’s Progress". As I chug along, I take photos with my phone and drop them into this folder for a quick reference of how far I’ve come. These images provide inspiration and momentum. A list of what I’ve already done makes the list of what’s left to do a bit more manageable. And when I’m finished, this folder will be my diary of the entire project. It’s something I’ll keep forever.
Just like that collection of dirty words.
(This post originally ran on Wired.com in October 2012)