The psychology of making lists: Why we're all obsessed with to-dos

Why are we all so obsessed with writing lists? [Photo: Getty]
Why are we all so obsessed with writing lists? [Photo: Getty]

To-do lists, shopping lists, packing lists… many of us are list lovers.

But two new books suggests that lists are more topical now than ever before.

L’art de la Liste: Simplify, Organise and Enrich Your Life, by Dominique Loreau, which hits shelves in the UK in early November has already topped the bestseller list in France.

Meanwhile Elisabeth’s Lists, a biography of Elisabeth Young, a prolific list-keeper, by her granddaughter Lulah Ellender, was released earlier this year and has already captured the hearts of list-lovers everywhere.

Putting pen to paper to bullet point your life is hardly a new phenomenon, so why is everyone exhibiting so much list love currently?

Wellness coach Alison T Smith believes our recent list obsession has something to do with the busy-ness of modern day life.

“Making lists has become more and more popular in recent years, especially for working parents, who are trying to pack more into their days,” she says. “People tend to have to wear many different hats throughout the day, at the same time as holding down a fulltime job.”

So basically we’re turning to list-making to help us juggle the harried-ness of every day life.

“By making lists we can eliminate the feelings of overwhelm, which we can very easily succumb to when a multitude of tasks need doing,” Alison explains.

“The act of simply writing these tasks down in the form of a ‘To-Do List’ stops them from whirring around constantly in our head, which takes away the worry of forgetting something, and this instantly reduces our stress levels.”

This lowering of anxiety thanks to list-making is actually backed by science. A recent study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University revealed that the simple art of making a list can free us from the anxiety of not having done what’s on the list.

What’s more they also found that the noting down of concrete plans to complete tasks made people more effective at actually getting them done.

Stress-relieving and productivity-improving aside there are plenty of other benefits to the humble list.

So here’s a list of reasons why we should all be making lists….

They give us structure

According to psychotherapist Noel McDermott we respond very positively psychologically to information organised in lists. “Lists reduce anxiety and increase wellbeing, giving us the sense that there is structure to things,” he explains.

“We find structure comforting mostly. Think of the bed routine for infants, it’s very structured and it works to comfort them into sleepiness. If you think about bedtime routines for kids, they are effectively a list, followed in mostly the same order at the same time.”

Why ticking off the to-do list is so good for our wellbeing [Photo: Getty]
Why ticking off the to-do list is so good for our wellbeing [Photo: Getty]

They give us a sense of satisfaction

Don’t underestimate the power of ticking something off your to-do list.

“There is such a sense of satisfaction with list making, especially when items on the list get ticked off,” says life coach, Chloe Leibowitz. “I’ve known people to add to their to-do lists things they’ve already accomplished, just so they can tick them off and boost those feel good hormones!”

They help us feel in control

Whether you tap them out on your Mac or they’re scribbled on a piece of paper, lists act as a simple tool to help us to visualise a situation and make it more manageable, which leads us to feel more in control of a situation.

“Psychologists often talk about ‘schemata’ – mental maps, a pattern of thought that organise information and the relationship among them, and these mental shortcuts helps us to better understand and absorb information more easily,” David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of the mental health and personal development app Remente explains.

They’re motivational

According to Chloe Leibowitz list making offers a sense of progress in your life. “Each task, if well detailed, is like a mini goal and allows you to move forward which can create a big impact on your wellbeing, and on your motivation to keep going.”

They help you focus on the positives

Keeping a track of lists and the tasks that have been completed is an excellent way of noticing things we have done well, or that have gone well.

“This is powerful because our brains tend to focus on what we haven’t done far more, which can lead to a more negative thought pattern,” explains Chloe. “A great way for individuals to boost their overall happiness levels is to keep focusing on the positives – what were the successes, what did get done?”

They help you sleep

Can’t sleep? Make a list! “List making before bed is an excellent and much used tool for anyone who struggles to switch their brain off and drift off to sleep,” advises David Brudö. “Keeping a pen and paper by the bed is a great way to relieve themselves of the anxiety created by outstanding thoughts and tasks.”

They boost your wellbeing

As well as using lists for the simple ‘to-do’s’, lists can be very powerful when it comes to listing out what we are grateful for in our lives, and what good things happened that day. “This sort of daily gratitude practise is simple but hugely effective for our overall sense of wellbeing,” Chloe Leibowitz explains.

“Making lists really is a very simple way to tackle feelings such as overwhelm, anxiety, stress – a lot of which can feel worse when all our thoughts and feelings are whirling around in our heads,” she adds.

“Sitting with pen and paper and releasing all those concerns is powerful – it doesn’t have to be a to-do list, it can just be a list of thoughts and feelings and a way to release negative energy that can be causing damage to our mental health.”

List making can be good for your mental health [Photo: Getty]
List making can be good for your mental health [Photo: Getty]

How to be a better list maker

Edit your lists

One list-making trap people fall into is making the list too long or the tasks too big, which will contribute to rather than reduce stress levels.

“It’s important not to go overboard with writing lists, as this too can become overwhelming, and you’ll end up never even starting them, let alone completing them, which will just end up making you feel even more stressed,” advises Alison.

The best way to overcome this is to break the lists down into much smaller, achievable bullet points. While ‘clean the house’ is an overwhelming task, clean the bathroom is much friendlier and therefore has more of a chance of getting ticked off.

“A never-ending to-do list might make you feel like you are never accomplishing anything,” explains David Brudö. “When setting up a list to check things off, make sure that you plan things that are achievable within the time frame you set out. One way to make a list even more meaningful is to connect the tasks on the list to goals that are important to you, this will infuse an extra sense of purpose to the list.”

Focus on the ‘done’ rather than the ‘to-do’

“The biggest downside to list-making is that we forget to focus enough on the done bit of the to do list,” Noel explains.

“We give ourselves more and more tasks and forget to look back and say ‘well done’.

We also need to be aware of the blurred lines between the list itself and the tasks on it in terms of feeling a sense of achievement.

“The achievement is not completing the list, the achievement is completing the task. The list should not become an end in itself, it should remain a tool. When it becomes the end rather than that means it can paradoxically create more anxiety.”

Be realistic

If you know you’re going to lose an hour to Instagram stories factor that into your list making.

David Brudö advises breaking tasks down into more manageable components and allocating set time to focus soley on that particular task (and not social media!) “This will help you concentrate on the task at hand and help prevent against procrastination and uncompleted task, which might lead to you feeling more stress and anxious.”

Give your lists a tech-over

According to David Bruno technology is helping us to make list-making easier “There are many useful apps available to help with this, such as Toggl, which tracks the time worked on a project, and the Remente app, which you can use to create useful to-do lists, set short-term goals and connect them together.”

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