Why I Love Lists

by Kentin Waits on 28 May 2013 8 comments

I love making lists. In fact, lists of all sorts organize and drive big parts of my life. I scrawl grocery lists, make quick lists of what I need to accomplish each day, make detailed lists of my tasks at work, keep lists of books I want to read, make lists of financial goals I want to achieve each year and — this one’s weird — I even make a list of every single article of clothing I’ll need to pack before I leave on a business trip or vacation. Call me anal, call me obsessive, call me a Type A personality — just give me a pen a piece of paper so I can keep track. (See also: 5 Hi-Tech To-Do Lists: Get It Done!)

A List Is an Idol

For me, and I suspect for many others, list-making is an exercise in meditation. It’s a clearing of the mind long enough to understand what needs to be done, what gets priority, and how many of our to-dos are interrelated and mutually dependent. Lists become a way to not only keep several balls in the air (a juggling trick many readers have practiced to perfection), but also a way to structure our days, or weeks, or months so that all of these little lists add up to some serious accomplishments.

A List Is a Promise

There’s something about making lists that’s supremely active. After all, isn’t making a list the very first step in achieving everything on it? Isn’t writing down what needs to be done a sort of declaration that you intend to do it? I think so. An honest and well-intentioned list is a promise to your future self, even if that future is just eight hours or a week away. Together, the humble list and the reflective list-maker plot to get things done — and it’s all documented on sticky-notes, on the backs of receipts, in daily planners, on our laptops and smart phones, on blackboards and whiteboards — even in the dust on the dashboards of our cars.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Making and Managing a List, Step-by-Step

My personal list-making process has been refined by years of trial and error. It goes something like this.

  • I make each day’s list the night before in my daily planner (a cheap little thing that I buy for $2.29 at my local dollar store quite ceremoniously every January).
     
  • As I complete each task, I check it off my list — an act that’s so sweetly satisfying that I blush to write about it here (die-hard list-makers, you know what I mean). The goal is to have nothing but a series of checkmarks by day’s end (and that’s a good day indeed, a red-wine-before-bed kind of day).
     
  • Whatever I didn’t accomplish from the previous day gets carried over to the next.
     
  • I review my lists briefly at the end of each day, considering what I accomplished or didn’t accomplish as I craft a more realistic and strategic list for the next day. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I have some serious nerd tendencies (a moniker I wear with pride), but I truly enjoy these end-of-day list reviews. It’s as if in these moments I’m able to tell myself, “If you accomplished nothing else today, at least you did these things.”

The list creation and list review become bookends to my day, and the cycle seems to work.

In our multitasking world where we’re expected to check email, complete a report, and review a spreadsheet all while driving and cooking a nutritious meal, lists are a line drawn in the sand of insanity. They are a methodical, reasonable, wonderfully old-fashioned method of getting things done consciously. Lists are a nod to the joy and the wisdom of mono-tasking; they're a way to carve out some mental space to plan, to keep a healthy pace, and really complete a task before moving on to the next. And when you factor in those hard won checkmarks, well…let’s just say that list-making can be deeply rewarding.

Are you list-maker? How do you keep yourself motivated as you work through each task? What advice would you give to new list-makers?

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Guest's picture

Lists are now a necessity for me as an extra check on meeting deadlines of all sorts. It definitely has the benefits you mention but I must use them as I get older.

Guest's picture

I like lists because it gets things out of my head, which lowers my mental overhead!

Guest's picture
Guest

I won't lie - I have been known to put tasks on my to-do list that are already done, just so I have some sort of accomplishment and can cross them off!

Kentin Waits's picture

:) Full disclosure: I've done that too!

Guest's picture

I'm an avid listmaker too. Am I the only one who sometimes adds things to a list even after I've done them, just to experience the joy of then crossing them off immediately? And re-reading old lists is a killer - what an insight into how life changes.

The to-do lists in my old diary had items on them like, ‘buy flights’ and ‘get cholera jab.' Just to torture myself I looked at my list from yesterday. It said, in order: ‘kiwis, nappies, ice-cube trays, paprika, phone school.’

I've written some more about the agony and joy of lists here if you're interested . . http://goodwebguide.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-joy-and-agony-of-making-l...

Guest's picture

I've been making lists since high school, and I just about lost my sanity when I stopped for a semester. My biggest problem is that I list EVERYTHING I need to do and usually, it's way too much for me to finish in one day. At least it's all written down.

Guest's picture
Gee

I'd be lost without my lists. The art in my view is not making the list too long and prioritizing. If something gets bumped a few days running I then wonder if it needs doing at all.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am a firm believer in "The List" and I have many. The most pressing items go in a "Today/Week" list. I title it this way so it gives me room to get things done. Obviously the things that have to be done Today go in the Today section at the top of my list and things that must be completed by the end of the week go on the bottom.

I use Microsoft Word for this with a bold title line and bullets for each item This works so well for me I have made a folder on my desktop "Varoius TO Do Lists" Within this folder I have all my sists and a Word template made so when I need a new list I just open the template change the title and enter my items. Upon closing I am prompted to save under the file name of my choice. Great system.

As I said, I have many lists. I am currently repairing a work van which is a major project. So I have a Van To Do List with all necessesary repaiirs prooritized. I can indent the bullets for steps to be done to complete each repair. Another list Is for a Vehicle Emergency Kit that i am putting together. I list everything i can think of that I want in this kit and as I buy it i cross it off the list. Talk about a feeling of accomplishment.

And there are planty more that I won't go into, Recreation, Short and Long Road Trips, Grocery List, Tool and Epuipment Lists etc.

Bottom line, when you put it on a list it get's done. Good luck with listing it truly can change your life