The Remarkable Power of Lists

by  Chad Balthrop  |  Workplace Issues

I have a confession to make. I’m a list person.

I can’t resist the subtle seduction of bullet points and numbered priorities. There’s something satisfying about charting a course one step at a time and tracking progress with check marks and scribbles. I’ve tried project management software and organizational apps. But, in spite of my usual technology addiction, when it comes to lists I’m old school. I like a good sticky note. Somehow the world changes when pencil meets paper and dreams get drawn up on the back of a napkin.

Have you ever stopped to consider the remarkable power of lists?

With nothing more than a noble idea, ink and a pen 56 men sign their name to the Declaration of Independence and a list that forms the foundation of a nation is born. All men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among which are:

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • The Pursuit of Happiness

McDonald’s used a list to train employees, guarantee customer satisfaction and even market the recipe for the Big Mac:

  • Two all beef patties
  • Special sauce
  • Lettuce
  • Cheese
  • Pickels
  • Onions
  • On a sesame seed bun

Even superheros understand the remarkable power of a good list. Superman fights for:

  • Truth
  • Justice
  • And the American Way

Lists define religion – think, 10 Commandments. Lists communicate vision – think, talking points for any presidential candidate. Lists give us a tool to educate people, encourage growth and evaluate performance. Lists set the standard, redefine the standard and make the standard something everyone can remember and repeat.

A good list is a powerful thing.

There are three basic kinds of lists:

  1. FIXED
  3. FLUID

FIXED LISTS represent those values, processes or procedures that are unlikely to change with culture or circumstances. The 10 Commandments are a good example. Whether you were born in Egypt in 640 B.C., Europe in the 13th Century A.D. or yesterday in Normal, Illinois, ‘Don’t murder‘ is a good life principle to have on your list. Fixed lists are often written in stone.

FLEXIBLE LISTS are project, people and purpose based. Expressed through the values found on fixed lists, flexible lists chart the course, set the speed, identify success and illuminate failure. These lists change with time and culture but will always reflect the vision and values of the person or organization. Flexible lists are often written on paper.

FLUID LISTS get us through today. This is your call sheet, email replies, and the calendar of scheduled meetings. Fluid lists change daily, hourly, or even up to the minute. They adjust to the needs of the moment. They help us manage the tyranny of the urgent and maneuver us into position to swiftly and efficiently keep moving forward. Flexible lists are often never written down at all. Getting them written can improve your flexible and refocus your fixed lists.

Here’s a list of the most important lists you need in your life.

  • Core Values – [fixed] What are the defining characteristics of you and/or your organization. What are the non-negotiable, built-in-to-the-DNA, character traits of who you are?
  • Current Projects – [flexible] Core Values define who you are. Current Projects define what you do. If you’re current projects don’t line up with your core values it’s time to make a new list.
  • Future Projects – [fluid] This could be problems to solve, markets to open, processes to refine, people to train or products to develop. This starts as a brainstorm that you refine into something more.
  • Policies & Procedures – [flexible] Mind-numbing? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Policies and procedures for your organization don’t have to be the red tape that prevents progress. They can be tools for training employees and insuring quality control. These kinds of lists makes it possible to replicate success in minor, but significant tasks. It allows you to scale production and insure every Chick-fil-A sandwich is equally tastey.
  • Stop Doing – [fluid] There are important things you need to avoid. There are decisions you should let someone else make. There are problems other people should solve. You’ve got unnecessary flotsam and jetsam on your todo lists that need to go away. Create a stop doing list and focus on what matters most.
  • ADD YOUR LIST HERE – what lists do you find most critical? Use the comments section to list your lists and encourage someone else!

Never underestimate the power of a well thought out list.

Leadership is more than lists. Effectively managing people requires more than a piece of paper and a good idea. However, a well written well used list can be the tool that brings vision to life, makes your mission memorable, equips employees and volunteers for success and allows you to define success along the way. Lists matter.

Don’t fear the list. Master it and discover the remarkable power contained within.


  1. Are you a list person?
  2. What’s the most important thing on your to do list today?
  3. Do your employees, coworkers, or boss know what’s on your ‘list’?
  4. How do your lists line up with or contradict the mission and method’s of your business, coworkers, employees or boss?
What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By chad-balthrop
Husband and father of four, Chad Balthrop has served Owasso’s First Baptist Church since 2002. As Executive Pastor he oversees strategic development for staff and volunteer leaders as well as campus and finance.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Peter Borner (@PeterBorner)  |  23 Feb 2012  |  Reply

M e thinks you need to discover Listly.com

Lary Kirchenbauer  |  24 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Hi Brad,

There’s little doubt that checklists can be extremely valuable. You might find this article I published about the Value of Checklists a powerful reminder of the value of the lists you so thoroughly described.


Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  | 

Hey Lary,

Thanks for pointing us to your article. Checklists are helpful because they allow us to get things right without having to think about them anymore. I don’t want my surgeon thinking through the steps of washing her hands just before my surgery. I want her focused on getting the surgery right. I also don’t want her to cut into my body without clean hands.

Lists help me get both.

God Bless,

Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for the recommend – I had not seen List.ly – great site.


Adi Gaskell  |  23 Feb 2012  |  Reply

They certainly seem to have taken off since blogs became popular. A good list is a staple piece of content on any blog these days. I wonder if we’ll eventually reach a point where their popularity (or overuse) will eventually see their effectiveness wane?

Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  |  Reply

I don’t think the effectiveness will go away – not in a society that wants to narrowly define what the meaning of ‘is’ is.

Our world swings between two distinctly different ways of thinking – Semitic Thought is story based. Hellenistic Thought is definition (think, list) based. Semitic thought is a narrative where principles and precepts are communicated as part of an incredible picture painted with words. Hellenistic thought is a detail driven exploration of the beauty found in exactness. Interestingly enough, modern Islamic cultures most closely represent Semitic Thought these days while the rest of the world thinks like Hellenists.

The best blogs – and teachers – I know effectively combine the story with the list. Powerful principles illustrated with compelling stories.

God Bless,

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach  |  23 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Yes, I am a list person. Self-employed w/no assistant. Lists are my assistant!

What list would I add to your list of lists? Blog post topics. Actually they are more like bits of paper wherever I get ideas and then I collate them. Fluid for sure.

Great post with a bit of humor. Nice Chad!


Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Hey Kate,

Thanks for the comment – Lists make great assistants. A blog post list is a great idea. I try to write something everyday. Having a list of topics to fall back to when things get a little dry would be helpful!

God Bless,

Patty Gardner  |  24 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Oh, yes – I’m definitely a list person. I can’t function without one. And it has to be with pen and paper. I’m one of those people who, if I do something NOT on the list, add it to the list so I can mark it off. I like to mark off what I’ve done with a highlighter. Then you can see at a glance what you’ve done and what you have left.

However, when I worked full-time, I had to keep my list on the computer because it was so long and changed so fast. But I still frequently got out a pad and paper and made a list of things I was going to work on that day.

Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Hey Patty,

I understand about paper and pen. I get that way about books too. I’m a gadget guy who owns an usual amount of Apple products, yet I find myself longing for the smell and feel of a good book.

I have a friend who says, “If I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” There’s another adage that says history is defined by the victors – but it’s more than that – history is the story of what gets written down.

I did a paper in college on the recreation of Israel as a nation state. It was interesting to dig through the archives – they have on file and for public access some of the most mundane documents: letters to and from minor level diplomats that determined things like seating arrangements at meetings, agenda items, etc…some of it felt like a policy-wonk’s todo list.

A really good list can live beyond the moment.

Thanks, God Bless,

Jon Mertz  |  25 Feb 2012  |  Reply


I like your post. I suppose I could list out the reasons why, but i will just say that, in general, I am not always a list person. I create lists when I have too much to do and to much too balance. The lists help me get through the tough times.

Having said this, your approach to lists is more about values and general philosophy, which is the right thing to do.



Chad Balthrop  |  27 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Hey Jon,

I agree. I tend to rely on lists when things are spinning so fast I’m not sure what to do next. These lists are different from the value lists. Too often people can’t accurately identify the values that are most important. Lists help us communicate that from top to bottom and back in again within an organization and can even help us market an idea.

Thanks, God Bless,

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