The calming power of lists

“Hold on, I’ve got to make a list.”

I’ve said this so many times — at the beginning of a project when I know a lot is about to come at me, when I need to go shopping, or when I’m about to tackle some errands for the day. If I have to communicate with a group of people, I make a list so I don’t leave anyone out.

Often, I’ll find a pen and a paper when I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to get everything out of my head. The simple act of writing down what needs to be done, when, and by whom, gives me a sense of being on top of things, even when the resulting list is ridiculously long. I feel a sense of relief, which can be explained by science.

Recently, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, shared his insights with the podcast, Note To Self. He said, among other things:

“I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter – get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.”

This notion mirrors something that author and productivity expert David Allen has said for years (I’ll paraphrase here), “The mind is not for storage. It’s for problem solving.” When you try to force it to do the former, you create dissonance and tension.

I prefer to outsource the task of remembering of what needs to be done to lists. Long-time readers know that I’ve got a pen and a notebook in my back pocket at all times. What’s inside my notebook? Lists. When I need to refer to what’s next, I just look at the notebook. My mind is free to do the work, not remember what work needs to be done.

It seems there are two types of people in the world: listers and non-listers. Unless you’ve got a mind like a steel trap, I don’t know how you do it. I’ll be a lister forever. Long live lists!

5 Comments for “The calming power of lists”

  1. posted by John Canon on

    I agree with you completely … except for 1 small coincidence.

    This morning I wrote on my whiteboard “no more lists”

  2. posted by Matt on

    Rather than being two kinds of people, I think there are three kinds of people:

    Listers (people who need lists) and two kinds of non-listers: people who don’t need lists and people who do need lists but think they don’t.

  3. posted by Laurie on

    Greetings,David. Thank you so much for this article. I have always made lists and my friends have teased me unmercifully about it. Now I know why list making is so helpful to me. Yay! I knew it all along!

  4. posted by Nan on

    There is another type – those who make copious lists and then promptly ignore them

  5. posted by Abigail Owens on

    I think that lists are mandatory in this day and age. I’m not just talking about business related lists, but also lists for daily personal activities. Also, you might have noticed that the most popular content on the web is in the form of listicles and top 10s. That’s because it’s easier to digest the information in this format.

    I create lists all the time and that helps me be more productive and time efficient. By creating a list I can see the bigger picture and focus on the problem at hand.

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