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The Short List vs. The Long List


I read about these two lists in the book titled The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.  In the book, the author wrote,

“People make two lists about their spouses and carry these lists around in their heads.  The long list is a detailed accounting of what’s wrong with their spouse, and the short list is a summary of what’s right.  The long list they consult every day.  The short list is read at the funeral.”  Rip the long list to shreds and spend every day reading from the short list.”

I have found this to be one of the most insightful things I have ever heard.  I have also found that this doesn’t just apply to our spouses or significant others.  It also applies to anyone with whom we have a long term relationship.  Let’s try to understand the “long list” and “short list” a little more.

The Long List

This long list is the list that we tend to add all the negative traits we see in another person.  When they hurt us, we can classify them as selfish, thoughtless, or mean.  Think of an argument you have had with your spouse or significant other.  One that really hurt your feelings.  You can’t believe they were sooooo selfish.  It hurt so bad that you made a mental accounting of what they did, just in case you see them getting ready to do it again.  You want to be on the look out…kind of a defense mechanism.  Subconsciously, it’s on your list of things to look out for.

Or maybe it is your kid who tends to leave their dirty dishes all over the house with no concern of picking up after themselves.  We tend to classify this as careless behavior, and begin to take it personally?  “Why can’t they just pick up after themselves?  Why do I have to be the one to clean up after them or be the bad guy when I say something?”  This type of behavior is classified as one of their flaws, and you guessed it, added to the long list we have on them.

But we also have a “short list” for each person…

The Short List

The short list is the list of all the good and positive things about people we have significant relationships with.  We fell in love with our spouse or significant other because they are considerate, thoughtful, and loving.  They always look out for us and protect us.  It is the short list that made these people so significant in our lives to begin with.  The problem with the short list is that we take it for granted and create a standard by which we want to hold the person against.  But this is unrealistic  as holding people to a standard is bound to end in disappointment of some sort eventually.

As Jeff Olson wrote in The Slight Edge, the short list is the list we tend to read at the person’s funeral.  If that doesn’t give you a lump in your throat and make you feel a bit guilty, I don’t know what will.  Why is it that we only tend to remember the great things about someone when something bad has happened?  When they are hurt, in the hospital, or have passed away, we focus on that short list and what we have lost.   The long list is no longer on our minds.

Final Thoughts

Don’t feel guilty about the short list/long list concept and the relationships we have applied them to.  We tend to do this subconsciously and automatically.  It is as if we are conditioned to make these lists and judgements that we blindly apply without even knowing it.  But now that we know about these two lists, we need to be more mindful. We need to focus on that short list and toss the long list out.  I know this can be easier said than done, especially when we get upset with the significant person.  But that is the best time to apply that short list.

When you feel yourself getting upset with someone you love or a good friend, consult the short list.  Remember they are a good person and focus on their positive traits.  Even really good people make mistakes, so be forgiving.  Don’t resort to a “here we go again” mentality where you automatically consult the long list of flaws created by your own judgments.  Focus on that short list and add to it.  Make the short list your primary focus and understand that no one is perfect.  Live the short list every day with this significant person, not just for fifteen minutes at their funeral. 

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