Why Making Lists Is Your Best Productivity Hack

making lists is good for you
Photo: Stacy Spensley via Flickr

When surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande released The Checklist Manifesto in 2009, the book’s mission was simple: Get people — all people — in the habit of making lists.

“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably,” he wrote, explaining how a checklist, in its simplest form, could help everyone from moms to doctors to artists to scholars do their work better, by taking some of the pressure to remember every detail off of the brain, thus freeing it up to think about other things. But the psychological rewards to list-making are many myriad — not only can a list help you not forget (and thus, unburden your mind), it can also help you set goals, be more productive, conquer Impostor Syndrome, and even feel physically better.

Making lists is a favorite pursuit of creatives of all types; apps like TeuxDeux, Wunderlist, and Google Keep are crazy popular. Just walk into any design firm and ask which list-keeping app everyone uses, and you’ll be sure to get an answer from everyone in the room. Part of that is because making lists allows creative people to focus on what really matters, without having to keep their short-term memory clogged with things like “feed the parking meter” or “respond to that email.”

However, lists can also be applied to bigger goals and things to remember, like high-aiming achievements. Planning to do something does, after all, make you feel basically the same as if you’ve done it, which can make too much planning actually a determent to productivity.  However, a list can also help keep you accountable; if you make a list for yourself of what you want to accomplish in, say, a quarter or a year, and then look back on it and realize you’re not finished, you’ll be more driven to go back and complete that thing. Make a list of your goals — then don’t share it with anyone. Just keep it to yourself as motivation.

Though they’re tried-and-true for most people, to-do lists actually don’t work for everyone. “Done” lists can be a lot more encouraging for people who like to see what they’ve already accomplished.

“While the to-do list has its place in organizing your tasks, having a better understanding of what you accomplish is more important than you’d think. It’s an often overlooked source of motivation,” writes Walter Chen for Inc.

The secret to a perfect “done” list? Making sure it’s also coded to jog your memory. For example, write down what you did, (“Sent boss an email”), then add an addendum to remind you to do something else (“need to follow-up”).

Lists can also bolster your confidence in times when it’s wavering. Studied since the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome — the feeling that you are fooling everyone around you and that you’re not really competent at all — can be crippling to your ability to make anything. However, keeping a list of achievements and accomplishments can help you quantify the good work you’ve done. Chances are, if you feel like you haven’t actually achieved that much, it’s because you’re forgetting some of the good work you have done. According to Melody Wilding, LMSW, making a concrete list, which you can look at and add to, takes the “emotionality out of it,” and helps you look at your achievements more objectively.

To-do lists are also an opportunity to build small moments of joy or humor into your day, which can actively spur you to release endorphins. Just laughing at one of your own jokes, a silly drawing, or a link to a GIF that always makes you smile can help you feel more positive. Stow links to positive emails, great praise from your boss, or a picture of your kids or your pets in your to-do list, so that you not only get the emotional boost of checking something off when you get to it, you also get to look at something that makes you happy.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.