March 10


ABC lists – How to use the thinking tool intelligently

By Laura Bacher

March 10, 2021

The ABC lists are a simple and excellent exercise to promote creativity, for studying, presenting, and other areas. Vera F. Birkenbihl invented this technique and developed many variations of it. It involves writing the alphabet letters on the left side of the sheet, one below the other, and assigning ideas (concepts) to the letters accordingly. She describes ABC lists as a “vertical City-Country-River game; only one topic, therefore all letters.” The goal of ABC lists is usually to collect as many ideas/associations as possible at first.

You don’t know ABC lists? Learn more about the thinking and creativity tool here.

You can use the ABC list technique in many areas. We will briefly introduce some of them to you today.

Support for students

You can use ABC lists to learn exam material for all subjects. Create a new ABC list for your study material every day – e.g., one list per study subject of the respective day. At 90 seconds per ABC list, this is a minimal time commitment that pays off tremendously! Also, as the number of terms in your list increases, you will see your knowledge of the subject increase. This progress has a strong motivating effect.

Here are some examples of how to use ABC lists when studying:
  • If there are areas in the exam material that are particularly difficult, create your own ABC lists for these sub-areas, just as described above. In this way, your ABC lists act as a real “study turbo.”
  • The first step of a successful preparation phase begins with an extensive collection of material. Here you compile all the content that could be relevant for an exam. ABC lists are particularly suitable for this inventory because one can proceed after a simple system.
  • In the lecture, one wrote down diligently? With ABC lists, you can evaluate your notes. For this purpose, you summarize the core contents in an ABC list. This compresses the knowledge, and gaps or crucial additional information become visible.
  • To train your vocabulary in a foreign language and practice writing the words, the use of ABC lists is ideal: Several times a day within a fixed time (90 seconds), try to find words on a specific topic. With this game, you train associative thinking, but also, you significantly increase the language vocabulary. The technique is also very suitable as support or review of a listening exercise:
  1. Play an audio recording (preferably spoken by a native speaker) at a volume that is easy to hear.
  2. Have an empty ABC list ready and write down everything you hear.
  3. Decide beforehand whether you want to focus more on the content or individual words/phrases. 

Training creativity

Creativity at the push of a button would be excellent! But sometimes, there is a low tide, and your brain is empty, especially when you need it urgently. Waiting for spontaneous ideas in the shower or during a walk is possible but suboptimal.

Remember the City-Country-River effect once again. Here you play through core topics that are important to you repeatedly (like cities, countries, rivers once upon a time) and deal with other topics only now and then individually. This is like creativity-building training. The ABC list technique is straightforward yet so effective. A must for everyone who wants to exploit their creative potential fully!

Tip: Write ABC lists 5-10 minutes every day for 14 days – always about the same topic. The subconscious will be tapped little by little, the flap to creativity will be opened wider and wider. Thus, after a few days, you will find extraordinary and always new associations and ideas that you had not thought of on the first day. Consult (summarize and possibly evaluate) the lists at the end into a single list.

Solving problems

Think about how tedious and difficult it often is to find a solution to a problem. Using the ABC list technique, challenging issues can be approached differently and solved creatively. The more complicated the situation seems the more creative the thought process should be. Use bisociations, etc.

Becoming smarter

Creativity can only flow when knowledge (ideas to “play creatively”) is available. Most people know a lot about TV series, plenty about cows, and little about hydraulics. Therefore, determine which topics you already have knowledge about and then systematically build on those areas. The easiest way to do this is to make ABC lists. By doing so, you will quickly find out which topics suit you. This will help you to think both more intelligently and more creatively. Then deal with your subjects in every free minute, e.g., when you go for a walk, jogging, on the way to work, standing in line at the checkout … There are countless ways to use 90 seconds for your intelligence in everyday life.

You’ll also benefit from the ABC list technique when it comes to structuring. Make repeated ABC lists on topics and subtopics. Get additional information from books, the Internet, etc. You can create more ABC lists for repeating, summarizing, and testing. Remember City-Country-River games of your childhood: those who play often know a lot! With ABC lists, we create a kind of City-Country-River effect for all topics we think of regularly.

For self-testing

With the help of the ABC technique, you can prepare for a topic or deepen your knowledge and excellently test how well you have already internalized learned content. Suppose you wanted to check, what comes to your mind about a specific topic straight away, then brainstorming would be your go-to. The ABC lists technique, CaGas, and CaWas are great for reviewing the current status, accumulated knowledge, or summarizing a topic. For example, you can use ABC lists, CaGas, and CaWas to study and prepare for exams by writing down everything you can think of about a topic. Spanish words about going shopping, facts about your own country, music pieces from the 19th century, rivers in the USA, everything about bees …

Birkenbihl thinking tools for (company) presentations

Also, ABC lists, CaGas as well as CaWas are excellently suited for the preparation of presentations. On the one hand, for collecting relevant content and on the other hand as an alternative to conventional presentation cards. The latter is particularly recommended for presentations that need to be incredibly authentic and spoken freely. For example, capture the most important key points of your presentation on the ABC list. You can then work through these depending on the audience, time, desire, and mood. Or write down the essential statements for each PowerPoint slide using a CaWa, so that you can speak freely instead of reading off pre-built sentences.

ABC lists are as simple as they are ingenious. They support us in so many ways and different areas of our lives. ABC lists are a real secret weapon for all those who appreciate and know how to use them. We wish you lots of fun and success!

Laura Bacher

About the author

Laura has been a big fan of foreign languages since her childhood. She grew up bilingual - English and German - and through international vacations, she got a taste of many other languages.

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