Michelangelo’s 16th Century Shopping List Did Not Include Pizza, Sadly

Reasons why smart people use shopping lists


Not too far off the mark from Kris Jenner’s own shopping list, which included salmon, avocados and oatmeal cookies, 16th century artist Michelangelo was known to make shopping lists for his assistant, who was illiterate. In typical artistic fashion, however, he also made small doodles of the groceries he needed, which sadly did not include pizza, to help the servant remember what he was supposed to buy. Like Kris Jenner, Michelangelo seemed to be a fan of fish, as his list called for herring for dinner, complete with a cute little fish-shaped drawing next to it. How’s that for a little ingenuity?

Michelangelo’s Handwritten 16th-Century Grocery List

If you’ve ever wonder why we forget things in the first place, it’s because of things that distract us from remembering. Here, let’s try out a little memory exercise. See if you can remember these items: herring, bread, wine, spinach and salt. Got it? It’s kind of like a little shopping list. I’ll clue you in to the significance of these items at the end of the article and why I’m trying to get you to remember them. Don’t cheat and come back and look at them! I’ll know if you did. I have my ways.

I personally use lists all the time, otherwise I would never remember what I went to the store for and just drive home. I have a whiteboard in my house because I will forget almost anything you say to me about 30 seconds after you say it. And yes, it can get very annoying.

Rather than strain to remember, I used to jot down to-dos and grocery items on my whiteboard, then take a picture of said list with my phone to look at when I’m at the store. The only trouble with my master plan was that I can’t mark off anything and have to keep switching between my pictures and my calculator all the time, which got annoying. Still, it was better than playing the biweekly guessing game I like to call “What’s Missing?” where I would spend an hour and a half trying to figure out what I need to buy from the store. I inevitably forgot something, only remembering it on the way home. At the earliest. These days I make a shopping list with an iPhone app that even reminds me, with a spoken voice, when I’m near the store in the first place. Now if only there was an app that would make me breakfast in the morning.

Any history buff can tell you what Michelangelo turned out to be: an architect, a sculptor, a painter and all-around phenomenal artist. When you think of him, you think of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. This small act of list-making exemplifies one of the key factors in successful people: organization. Organized and detail-oriented people tend to be much more successful than their disorganized counterparts and both qualities are equally important since, well, making a list is only half the battle. This is why even Santa checks his list twice.

“When you give your husband a grocery list and forget the dots…”

It’s not just about organization, either: lists are popular. How many top ten videos have you watched on YouTube? If you’re anything like me, you’ve lost sleep over an endless stream of ridiculous top ten lists on YouTube at least once. Ever watched “Top Ten Weird Laws”? Maybe “Top 10 Facts You Wish You Didn’t Know”? And you almost certainly aren’t the only one.

Lists make for a good lure because viewers become curious who the top result will wind up being and whether or not they agree with the video’s creator or not. Even David Letterman has been making lists funny and interesting for decades, as did our friend Michelangelo centuries before that.

Lists are useful because they help us organize our thoughts, sort information by priority and they can be great for building anticipation. People tend to remember both the first and last items on a list, but have a harder time remembering everything in between. When you have everything written down, however, you are far less likely to forget something. Since most people now have a smaller attention span than a goldfish, lists are also more appealing psychologically since they typically don’t take that long to completely read and comprehend.

Going back to our friend Michelangelo for a minute, he probably had to deal with plenty of forgetful people in his lifetime, especially since word-of-mouth is so easy to completely forget or remember incorrectly. I can imagine this assistant just chatting up everyone he meets on his way to the store, talking about the nice weather, asking someone if they have seen so-and-so. All of these mundane events can erode an unimportant memory like stuff on a grocery list in no time. Intelligent man that he was, Michelangelo created an incredibly simple failsafe; rather than just writing a list of words, he included pictures, too. Even if the assistant couldn’t read, he could still show the list to someone if he couldn’t make sense of the pictures, ensuring he bought all of the right items whether he remembered them or not.

So, do you remember the list I asked you about earlier in the article? I’ll give you a moment to think about it.

Ready?

If you do remember, then pat yourself on the back because herring, bread, wine, spinach and salt were some of the items on Michelangelo’s own grocery list. If you didn’t remember, that’s completely natural. That’s because this entire article, interesting as it may be, is also one big wad of what psychologists call “interference,” one of the main reasons we forget things. We forget things chiefly because we get distracted by what is going on around us, and this can also influence your long-term memory as well. Fascinating, isn’t it? This exact reason is why writing down important information is both invaluable and widespread.

And that’s the end of my tale, I hope you enjoyed it. I’m the founder of Capitan, a smart shopping list app for a busy world (still in private beta).