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making lists on paper

What Psychology Tells Us About Using List-Making to Achieve Our Goals

I’m an advocate for list-making. I make one myself most mornings, taking the time over my first cup of coffee to contemplate my day: What is it I need to get done for work? What have I been neglecting so far this week that I should crack on with? What little things can I throw in that are just for me?

I also like to make lists of the various things I want to get around to; coffee shops to visit, lyrics I want to remember, story ideas, and things to circle back to when I get a chance.

Lists don’t just inform the things we think we should be doing or getting around to; lists portray our intentions and expectations, and beyond this, our anxieties and self-criticisms.

With lists forming such a vital part of many of our days, how can we use them more effectively and productively to help us achieve our goals instead of simply being a place-holder for them?

making lists for your mental health and productivity

Transmuting Our Goals to Paper

Lists of all kinds have their benefits and drawbacks. Psychologists, the ever-curious folk they are, have sought to uncover the how and why of list-making and its role across our broader psychological functioning.

Let’s take a look at the humble To-Do list for starters. We’re taught from a young school-age when things feel overwhelming, or we have a lot to get done, the solution is simple; create a To-Do list.

Psychologists have found that this is pretty sage advice. We’re hardwired to function better when we have a plan.

In the 1920s, Zeigarnik found that people recall finished tasks more accurately than unfinished ones. In their creatively titled research paper, Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals, psychologists Baumeister and Masicampo (2011) built on previous research from Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.

Baumeister and Masicampo wanted to explore why this happens and what factors influence a finished or unfinished task. They found that:

  • People perform better at a task once they create a concrete plan for completing it.
  • Breaking a task down into a list of smaller steps made them more likely to finish the task.

Essentially, when we plan out our tasks, we’re more likely to work through them to completion and avoid becoming side-tracked as we know that each task will be given its own time to work on in due course.

Which sounds wonderfully simple, albeit a tad optimistic. As anyone anywhere who has ever written a To-Do list will know – it’s never that simple. But this research does provide great insight into why taking a goal, breaking it down, and writing out how we’re going to achieve it can really motivate us to get it done.

writing a to do list with post it notes - reasons to write things down pen to paper

Rethinking the Role of Lists for Goal Achievement

While I might like to dedicate a portion of my morning to developing a clear To-Do list for the day, my enlightened morning ritual rarely makes it past midday.

Sometimes even the most articulate list of tasks and goals never gets finished as procrastination kicks in, and we somehow manage to find any number of suitably ‘important’ but relatively non-essential activities to get stuck into.

Some days we have to accept that lists aren’t the answer – or not in the way we might currently be thinking about them.

The current #hustle culture often applauds and promotes collecting accolades and projects, but it doesn’t allow breathing room to stop and ask the questions:

  • Are these the right accolades and projects I should be doing? 
  • How do these things add real value to my life? 
  • Does being involved with them keep me 100 percent engaged? Do they consume me while I’m doing them, or does a part of me die inside when I see it on the list?

Henry David Thoreau advises that we keep our accounts on our thumbnail – the shorter, the better. Rethinking the role of lists in supporting us to achieve goals means turning a focus to quality over quantity.

We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a week, month or year. This longer-term view on our lists could be the answer to real progress.

Jim Collins, educator and author, details a turning point for him when one of his graduate professors asked him to reflect on a common query. In a post for the USA Today, he explains:

“Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first call tells you that you’ve inherited $20 million. The second tells you that you have a terminal disease with no more than ten years to live. What would you do differently, and what would you stop doing?”

Through this task, Collins made a complete reassessment of where he was at, what he was giving his time and energy to, and what he would rather be doing. He describes this as a pivotal moment in changing the way he approached his work and his entire career trajectory. Instead of a To-Do list – he created a Stop Doing List.

To start curating your Stop-Doing list, Collins suggests asking the following:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  • What makes economic sense? 
  • What can you make a living doing?

Your real goal list for life begins at the intersection of these questions.

When we reframe how lists can influence us to make changes and be productive, we can see how we might use them to motivate us towards the more significant changes we want to make in life.

Now, instead of simply writing out a list of tasks for the day while I drink my morning coffee, I’m thinking of just one thing I want to focus on that will lead to me achieving the goals I want for my life. It might be something I need to do, but it might also be something I need to stop doing.

I’m hoping that over the course of this year, it will slowly help me finally reach some of those more challenging goals that have been on my list for awhile but never seemed to get anywhere.