It doesn’t matter if you’re old-school and write everything down, or have an obsession with downloading the latest productivity apps to help you organize you tasks – there’s no doubt about it.

We are a society that loves lists.

Scribbled on a piece of paper, written neatly in a day planner, or stored in an app – lists are everywhere you turn these days.

In today’s post, I’ll explore lists, and try to discover why they are so useful in our everyday life. Why do we make them? Do they actually help us? I’ll also go over some tips for making a good to-do list.

Lists help us make sense of the world

In an interview with Der Speigel, Italian philosopher and novelist, Umberto Eco, discussed why he thinks lists are essential to humans:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. 

In simple terms, we use lists to make sense of things and express ourselves. A list gives us a tool to “pack all the madness and ambiguity of life into a structured form of writing” and help us face the things that overwhelm us in the world.

A whimsical look at the human need to make lists and classify things can be found in Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. In it, Borges mentions a fictional taxonomy of animals that he claims can be found in an old Chinese encyclopedia called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

The animals are classified in the following way:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Eco explains that while we may think of the list as something outdated that has no place in today’s digital world, it’s actually timeless because it’s so simple.

We also use lists for practical everyday things in our lives: a list of food we need to buy, a list of books we want to read, a list of restaurants we’d like to try, and of course, a list of things we want or need to get done. It’s one of simplest habits to help you increase your productivity…and in many ways, your happiness.

The psychology of behind the to-do list

Lists may be the origin of culture, but the origin of the list, as I discovered, is pretty hard to pin down.

New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister tackled this subject in the third chapter of their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. A book, I should add, written with more than 3o years of serious academic research behind it. They explore the use of the list by the storytellers that wrote the Bible to Benjamin Franklin’s use of lists on his path to self-improvement.

To my mind, as I don’t have 30 years to do my research, it was better to look at why lists work rather than try to figure out where they come from.

There is actually a psychological reason as to why we feel compelled to write lists to help us remember to do things. It’s called: the Zeigarnik effect. This is what psychologists say is the brain’s tendency to remember unfinished tasks and forget those we have completed.

Basically, the brain is wired to keep reminding you about things you need to do. For example, if you’ve ever worked at a restaurant or bar – you can often easily remember a table’s drink orders and then, instantly forget about them as soon as they’ve been dropped off.

Although originally thought to be an internal alarm system to ensure you  eventually complete your goals, newer research says it’s actually  your mind’s way of reminding you to make a plan to fulfill a goal. Once you’ve done that, your brain will quit nagging you and leave you distraction-free.

So, while your brain can help you out – it can only hold so much. Making a list not only allows you to remain focused and on task, but also relieves some of the pressure to remember everything you need to do.

Make a good to-do list by recognizing a bad one

Of all the lists we make these days, the To-Do list has become one of the most popular tools to help overcome procrastination.

It seems simple enough: make a list and complete each point.

However, if you’re anything like me, you can end up developing a love-hate relationship with your to-do list over time. Conquering the tasks on a to-do list can end up being more challenging than expected. In other words, just because a task is on your list, doesn’t guarantee that it will be completed.

Older tasks that remain unfinished may eventually be discarded, or forgotten, as new ones are added to the list. Or, maybe you end up doing things that aren’t planned or have nothing to do with your original goals. As a result, the helpful to-do list becomes more of a curse than a boon to productivity.

So, how do you avoid this happening? Understanding some common mistakes that people make can help you understand what to avoid when creating your own to-do list.

So, in honor of lists, I made a list:

#1: Too much to do 

We are often tempted to write everything that needs to be done on a single list. In the end, we find ourselves with more tasks than we can realistically handle at once. A list like that won’t foster productivity, it’ll stifle it. Cramming our lists to capacity causes more stress than relief, since we normally start agonizing over how to get everything done.

#2: Listing the wrong tasks 

While a to-do list can help us remember everything, it can become a source of anxiety if we’re not careful. As Tierney and Baumeister  noted in Willpower, the Zeigarnik effect is only meant to remind you that you need a plan – not there to make sure you actually complete it.

Failing to break a project into smaller steps can leave you with a long list of things you’re not sure how to complete. For many of us, this spells disaster. When faced with a goal and no suggestions as to how to reach it – we often end up giving up or simply choosing to do something else. So, keep that in mind, as you decide what you need to do.

#3: Your deadlines are MIA or unrealistic

This is two pitfalls wrapped into one: failing to set deadlines and being unrealistic about the ones we do set. Set deadlines. No delivery date can contribute to procrastination. At the same time, make sure your deadlines are realistic. If your tasks are correctly broken down into smaller steps, you should be able to finish them in a timely manner. Being too generous with your timeframe often equates to not finishing them. Similarly, not giving yourself enough time can up your stress levels!

#4: Your list doesn’t leave any room for change 

There’s no way to predict the way the day is going to go and a list can’t predict unforeseen problems or distractions.  Unscheduled interruptions are a part of life and it’s these changes that probably result in failure the most. Being unable to recognize what we do get done won’t help us reach our end goals any faster. If the list is too strict, it risks becoming a bane to our motivation instead of the boost it’s intended to be.

Hope this post helps you make a great to-do list, or at the very least, embrace your love of lists.

A little extra fun: think you’re an obsessive list maker? Here’s 27 signs from Buzzfeed that say you are.

Do you use a to-do list? What works best for you? Share with us in the comments below or on Facebook. You can also tweet to us directly, @flow_reader.