big stock Intelligent young woman writing in a hardback notebookTake a moment and write a list of everything you desire and need in a life partner. Take several moments, in fact. Put in everything — in detail, in color. Dream big.

Then separate that list into must-haves — stuff you just can’t do without — and desirables — things you’d like, but could compromise on if they were otherwise wonderful.

All done? In my experience, most folks resist making their list. And that’s a shame, because your list is an amazing tool in the work belt of life. With your help, it’s going to do three really vital jobs for you.

1. Find hidden singles. Have you ever gone car shopping? Ten years ago, I bought a Mini Cooper, and I love it so much, I haven’t replaced it. A funny thing happened while I was looking around, though: I saw Minis everywhere. It really seemed like the world was chock-full of them.

You may have heard of the law of attraction, which says that we draw to us what we imagine. If life really worked like that, you’d create your list and cool your heels while The One appeared.Sigh. Not true. And yet the list is very powerful — not because it attracts the right people to you, but because you start noticing them.

Just as I started noticing my brand of car everywhere once I’d narrowed my search, you will begin noticing your kind of sweetheart once you refine your own list. Mr. Right might be where you work or live; Ms. Right might be where you worship or shop. The point is, have you noticed? Or is The One hidden in plain sight because you aren’t clear on your needs?

2. Do first things first. There’s a saying, “first things first.” It means you need to do things in the order that makes the most sense. This sounds obvious, but without your list, you’ll probably do first things last. In these relationships, people meet, have sex, get emotionally involved, and then figure out whether this person is what they want.

You may think this is the exception, but research shows that hooking up on college campuses has largely replaced dating. A hookup can be anything from sleeping over to kissing to having intercourse to oral sex. An 18-month multi-campus study of American college life found that most women continue to enter and leave college hoping to find yes, a degree, but also to find love and marriage. The decline of dating and the rise of hookups has cost them, more than men, a great deal in terms of confusion and pain.

So some girls and women reading this may never have had a date; some might have had sex with men who wouldn’t acknowledge them as girlfriends. They have no idea what to expect and require in courtship. Take this letter, from Gina (not her real name):

I’m confused about “Sam.” We hang out almost every night, and we have sex, and he says he likes me. We are each other’s fallback plan; it’s assumed we will see each other daily. But he’s never outright said whether I am his girlfriend. I asked once, and he laughed and asked why I couldn’t tell, and changed the subject! It’s depressing. How can I find out what I am to him?

If you are tired of being confused, or if you’re tired of getting into sex-first, questions-later situations, or if you’ve had enough of getting emotionally invested and only later finding out that this one is not The One — it’s time to let your list turn that dynamic around. And how do you do that? Know your standards. Then, listen closely to feedback and ask the tough questions about and to this person before you get emotionally and physically involved.

I’ve read of a study showing that a date’s friends will tell the truth about them. That fits my experience. I broke up with a man whose ex-wife called to ask me to reconsider: “You’re really special to Bill. I knew that as soon as I found out he drives an hour to see you. He never goes out of his way for anyone.”

I didn’t listen to the important part of her message: Bill wasn’t especially flexible or concerned with other people’s needs. Both times we broke up the reason was: He was not especially flexible or concerned with other people’s needs.

When I met my husband Vic, though, he took me to a party “so you can meet everyone I know. I want my life to be an open book.” Nobody there told me how lucky Vic was; they all said how fortunate I was to be with him. Bingo.

So listen to what others say about your partner. Ask the person you’re dating, too. You can be creative about it, but ask questions that add up to whether or not this person fits your must-haves. One of the more valuable questions I learned to ask in my dating life was: “If your ex and I were talking, what reason would she give for your breakup?”

Vic had answered a lot of my questions before we ever met in person; we talked about them on the phone. I didn’t rudely bust out with, “Here is my list, and you’d better answer the way I want, or I’m not going out with you.” But I did broach important questions in a friendly way, and I didn’t wait until we were deeply involved. What if he’d refused to respond, or said something like, “Wait, why all the questions?” Some men did. We didn’t go out. If you’re reading this, my guess is that you have had enough of doing last things first, having hookups, and floundering around wondering what’s going on. And if so, you’re ready for someone who is also ready to do first things first.

3. Avoid deal-breaker temptations. Doing first things first won’t help unless you heed your own list. The absence of even one tiny little must-have means that you must not; the whole relationship is a no-go for you, a heartbreak waiting to happen. So don’t go there.

Of course, a lot of us have trouble with this one. Almost everyone I know who has made the list has at least occasionally dated someone with a known deal-breaker. Why do we ignore our own lists? Sometimes, it’s because we question ourselves or our standards. Or we’re lonely. We’ve lost hope. We think love is rare, and we have to hang onto it no matter what, because all you need is love. Apologies to the Beatles, but science disagrees. Love is like roadside flowers in springtime: beautiful, but common.

Sometimes, we fall in love with people where things just won’t work out; and most people fall in love more than once. Nearly all of the divorced were in love when they wed. If love was all they needed, they would’ve stayed put!

What’s enough is love, plus kindness, respect, similarity, and you sticking to your list. Before I got that, I got heartache. After I got that, I got the man I’ve been happily married to for nearly seven years.

Your right person won’t be perfect. But if you’re careful about this, they will be perfect for you.