Main content

Seven ways making lists could change your life

Shopping lists, to-do lists, life goals, work tasks, checklists… itemising our ideas, plans and reminders can be useful in so many ways, as we learned in Jenny Éclair is Listless Today.

Whether you’re a long-time list lover or are yet to be converted, scroll down for some surprising revelations about the benefits of the bullet point (that’s right: it’s a list about lists.)

1. Set your thoughts free

Okay, so getting organised is the obvious one, but there’s more to making a to-do list than you might think.

Writing out all the tasks you need to get done can help you prioritise and plan, structure your thoughts, manage your time and break bigger projects down into more manageable steps. What’s more, taking that swirling mass of thoughts in your head and pinning them down on paper can actually calm you down. And crossing things off once they’ve been completed can bring a sense of satisfaction and validation.

Not convinced? Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says we can only hold four things in our heads at once, so we need lists to free up our thoughts and banish that troubling feeling there’s something we’ve forgotten.

2. Make you more successful

Lists can literally make you more successful and productive. Research into goal-setting by the psychologist Jordan Peterson has shown that students perform markedly better if they follow a process that involves reflecting on their past habits and make a list of concrete targets for the future.

Similarly, a 2013 study by FL Schmidt revealed that employees’ productivity increases by 10% if they’re helped to set specific, challenging, realistic targets.

But don’t let your boss get all the benefits: structured long-term goal-setting has been shown to help people achieve their personal aspirations too. So grab a pen and paper and start listing some big ambitions.

3. Save you money

Shopping lists are more than just a way to make sure you don’t overlook the loo roll in the supermarket: over time they can save you some serious money. By writing down everything you need before you hit the shops you can stop yourself making unnecessary or extravagant impulse purchases.

This does, of course, require a degree of self-restraint. So if you find it too tricky, try allowing yourself one off-list item per trip. And if you’re easily tempted, put a price limit on it: there’s no point being disciplined at the deli counter only to end up buying a week in Corfu on a whim on the way home.

4. Beat self-doubt and bolster your self-esteem

If you ever feel like you’re not good enough or that life is passing you by, a list could come to the rescue.

Writing down your achievements – large and small – can be a surprisingly simple way of reminding yourself just how excellent you actually are. They could be academic or professional triumphs, or simply personal ones. Include everything from climbing a mountain or acing an exam to reaching the end of a challenging book, or remembering to write to a friend on their birthday.

For people struggling with low self-esteem, the mental health charity Mind recommends making a list of 50 things you like about yourself, even if it takes a few weeks to think of them all or you have to ask a friend for ideas (they will no doubt have loads). Then look at a different bit of the list each day to quietly comprehend your many great qualities.

How accurate is your memory?

Bettany Hughes takes a memory test and talks to neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday.

5. Ensure you don’t make mistakes

A particular type of list can help avert disaster: the checklist. Whether you’re planning a wedding, organising a house move or preparing for a holiday, it’s vital to have a thorough inventory of everything you need to do written out in advance. That way you won’t forget to bring the rings, book a removal van or pack your passport.

In hospitals, where it’s easy for small mistakes to snowball into potentially fatal problems, checklists are saving people’s lives every day. The first formal medical checklist in the US was introduced to ensure intravenous tubes were inserted into patients’ chests correctly by following five simple steps. The result was a fall in infections from 4% to zero in just 15 months, saving almost 1,500 lives and $200 million.

6. Help you to stay focused

Ever heard of the Zeigarnik Effect? Well, it might just be getting in your way without you even realising it.

This psychological principle states that our brains remember tasks we’ve left uncompleted better than things we’ve actually accomplished. As a consequence, when you’re trying to focus on something important you’ll often find yourself distracted by other unfinished business.

The answer? Psychologists say you should write down all those nagging unfulfilled aims in a big long list (answering those overdue emails, hand washing that silk shirt, working out who the word ‘millennial’ is actually talking about) so your brain knows they’re being dealt with, then you’ll be better able to concentrate on the task in hand.

7. Face up to things you’ve been putting off

We’ve all got a few unappealing chores that we know need to be done lurking at the back of our minds. Well now’s the time to write ’em down and tick ’em off.

Getting to the end of an unpleasant to-do list can actually be incredibly satisfying, not to mention a hefty weight off your mind. And if you tackle all the awfulness in one go, the individual tasks might not seem so bad.

So go forth and get things done – rinse the bins, clear out the loft, book that dental appointment and then call your ex to ask them to hand back that cheese grater you definitely paid for.