Your Brain + Lists = ❤
I’ve always loved lists. For groceries, chores, work, hobbies…my lists ran the gamut. When I was a kid, I crammed lists into every spare inch of my school agenda. When life seemed overwhelming, I’d make a list and somehow, it would seem a bit more manageable.
It’s a habit I’ve continued into adulthood. I still make lists every day—the only difference is that now, they’re digital (I use Todoist). They help me stay on top of everything; not just work-related tasks but personal goals, too.
This year, I was ambitious. I wanted to write a novel, write a personal essay every month, run a half-marathon, plan my wedding and get married, and learn to scuba dive (then actually dive)…all while working a full-time job and keeping the house clean.
And guess what? I did everything. I’m bloody tired, but I did it.
Here are just a few reasons why lists are key to productivity.
Lists reduce decision fatigue
Here’s the decision fatigue theory in a nutshell: you only have the mental stamina for so many decisions in a day. Too many decisions in too little time, and you risk decision burnout. After a long day, even choosing what to make for dinner can feel like a daunting task.
Steve Jobs is the token icon for decision fatigue. He wore the same outfit every day (you know the one—blue jeans and black turtleneck) and saved himself one decision every day. He made sure he had the mental stamina for at least one more business decision.
I like making my list first thing in the morning, when I have enough mental stamina. I know my priorities and organize my tasks accordingly. Then for the rest of the day, I let the list do the thinking. All I have to do is execute the tasks on the list, simple as that. I no longer have to decide which tasks to do, or even in which order to do them. It’s already done. Now I have more mental stamina for other decisions throughout the day, like how to tackle an editing project.
Lists make the big goals possible
Have a huge goal for the year? It can be easy to write ‘write book’ in your to do list, but actually doing the thing is another matter entirely.
If I added ‘write book’ to my to-do list and had to look at it every day, I’d never actually write. I’d just feel guilty about not writing the damn book already, and then I’d end up avoiding my to-do list (not speaking from experience, *cough cough*).
Rather than end up in an unending guilt spiral, I break down big goals into bite-size chunks over a number of months. ‘Write book’ becomes ‘brainstorm novel outline’, ‘work on Wren’s character arc’, and ‘write first paragraph of chapter’. Chipping steadily away at smaller tasks may seem like slow work, but it really does feel like you’re making progress…and it has the added bonus of keeping the big task feeling fresh and interesting.
Lists are habit-forming
There’s a fun thing that happens when you have repeating tasks on your to-do list—you start forming habits (on average, it takes about two months to form a new habit).
I spent a number of months writing every day. I woke up early, made a coffee, and started hitting the keys on my laptop. Thirty minutes later, my husband was awake and the work day began soon after.
Eventually, I finished a draft of the book and removed all mention of writing from my to-do list. It was strangely liberating, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to some down time. But the next day, in a sleepy stupor, I found myself on the couch with a coffee, laptop open on my lap. Habits die hard, I guess.
I’ve created daily reminders for a number of things that I automatically do now—like flossing (ugh), taking my iron supplements, and changing the towels every 2 weeks. I barely think about these small tasks anymore, and it’s because they started as lists and became habits.
To list, or not to list
Know when lists will help, and when they won’t.
Personally, I’m not a fan of pros and cons lists. People recommend them when you’re stuck trying to make a big decision, but a big decision shouldn’t be made with a simple list of yays or nays. You’ll know in your gut if something is right for you, and no amount of listing will figure that out.
I also find that if you’re starting to feel reluctant to look at your to-do list, it’s better to pivot than beast through it. This is key with my writing to-do’s. For about 3 months, I had ‘write 500 words’ on my to-do list, but it soon felt like a chore. Rather than stare at the screen for 2 hours, make zero progress, and feel like a failure, I pivoted my to-do to say, ‘write for 30 minutes’—a way more digestible goal that helped me get back into the swing of things. I didn’t write 500 words per day for a while, but I did make huge progress on the structure and themes of the book.
One last thing about when not to list—it’s okay to remove items from your list, especially when your priorities change. I had a daily task to do a Duolingo lesson but I didn’t feel improved with my Spanish. I axed it from my to-do list, and looked into in-person classes.
Lists help prioritize the important stuff
Life is short. Do the things that matter first.
Don’t let your most important task sink to the bottom of the list. Keep it at the top. Put a star next to it. Or an emoji. Whatever makes it stand out and keeps drawing your eye to it.
When I was training for the half-marathon this year, I was training five times a week. Running became my top priority from July to October. ‘Run’ sat on the top of my to-do list, and I did it first thing every day. I woke up early (yeah, there were a lot of early mornings this year), hit the pavement, and got back in time to get showered and dressed for work.
When I didn’t manage to lug myself out of bed for a run first thing, I felt guilty all day. By the time I finished work, I’d be tired and hungry—less than ideal conditions. I’d scarf down some food, pull on my gear, and get a cramp on my run (-_-). Technically, it was a run, but my pace was way off. I should’ve just done it first thing, like it said on the list.
Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you how awesome lists can be. Yes, I might be a little obsessed. But can you blame me? Lists and I have been through a lot together. They help my anxiety from spinning out of control and keep me accountable to my goals. They keep me going.
Every year on my birthday, I used to make a list of goals for the next year—something of a personal tradition. But every year, I’d end up falling short and feeling disappointed that I didn’t accomplish everything that I set out to. If you’re anything like me, you’ve done the same thing.
I have a different suggestion. Nowadays, I write a different list on my birthday. Instead of a list of goals, I make a list of accomplishments for the year. Things I’m proud of. Things I feel good about. Things that make me smile.
And you know what? It’s always my favourite list of the year.