If you’re a die-hard list-maker, there may be many different reasons you keep up the habit. Maybe you feel you need lists to keep you “on task.” You might find they help you prioritize and get more done in the day. Maybe you’re just a little OCD and not starting your day with a list leaves you mildly off-balance and jittery. Ask five different list-makers what motivates them, and you’ll get fifty different enthusiastic answers.
If you’re not a list-maker, though, the very thought of becoming one might make you feel a little anxious. Lists may make you feel boxed in. You might feel like they stifle your creativity and leave no room for spontaneity. In fact if you’re not a list-writer, just the idea of writing down and organizing your “to-do’s” can be downright panic-inducing. So you might want to take a deep, calming breath before we go on. Because today I’m here to tell you something scary:
Making to-do lists is good for your brain.
But don’t stress too much. It’s not following the list that’s important—though that can help you get things done more effectively. No, it’s the act of list-making itself that’s important. Whether or not you follow through with your list is irrelevant—just making the effort to create one has some serious psychological benefits.
To-do lists help you focus and put worries in their proper place
Let’s face it: our minds are full of clutter. At any given point in time, there are dozens of different thoughts bouncing around inside our minds, all clamoring for our attention. And, since the average person can only hold about 4 things in mind at once, that means we spend an awful lot of time metaphorically chasing our own tails—putting out mental fires by giving a few seconds or minutes’ attention to the thoughts that shout the loudest even if they’re not the most important.
It also means that we waste a lot of mental energy we could use more constructively. Each of those dozens of thoughts, even though we might not actively be giving them attention, is simmering away quietly in the background, keeping us slightly distracted and creating stress.
Making a list forces you to stop for a moment and focus on one thing at a time—at least long enough to write it down. And writing things down sends your mind a message. It lets your subconscious know that yes, you are paying attention, and that even though you might not be able to address this thought (or worry) fully right now, you’re making time in your schedule for it later when you can give it a full hearing. This reduces the background chatter and lets you channel that mental energy into something more constructive.
To-do lists create clarity and reduce stress
Simply writing things down often helps clarify your thoughts. The process of putting thoughts into words helps solidify them, sharpening their outlines. That’s why journaling is such an effective stress reduction tool.
But unlike journaling, making to-do lists requires prioritizing the items on the list, which in turn helps put things in their proper perspective. When you make a list, you’ll often find that the thought which nagged you the most—the squeakiest wheel, the voice that shouted the loudest—isn’t necessarily the most important. It’s just the most annoying. Making a list lets you view the whole picture and slot things into their proper places, plus it gives you a plan of action—all of which goes a long way toward reducing stress.
To-do lists help you remember—but not in the way you think
Even non-list-makers write to-dos down sometimes, usually when it’s something extremely important. And we do it for one simple reason: so we don’t forget things. Having a list in hand, the thinking goes, means we don’t even have to try and remember—we can just glance down at the list and read what we’re supposed to do. And that’s true, as far as it goes.
But there’s more to it than that. Those of us above a certain age will remember (with a shudder, for the list-haters among us) writing endless repetitions of things in school—spelling words, rules of grammar, multiplication tables and more. (How many of us had to write things like a noun is a person, place, or thing ten times as part of a lesson? Or write our “times tables” up to the 12s over…and over…and over…till they stuck in our heads?)
As mind-numbing as it may have seemed at the time, there’s a very good reason we had to do that: the actual physical act of writing something down helps cement it in your memory—and that goes double for people who are tactile/kinetic learners. Saying it aloud while you write it makes it even more likely to stick—the more senses you can involve, the more likely you are to remember something. Making a to-do list, especially if you speak each item aloud as you write it down, helps you to remember even if you lose your list or choose not to use it.
In a way, list-making allows you to become more mindful. It frees you from much of the nagging background thoughts—the constant mental chatter—that keeps you from being fully present in the moment. If you’ve got a list, you don’t have to worry about remembering to pick up milk or stop at the post office because you’ve got it written down. That leaves you free to become totally immersed in whatever is going on around you right here and right now. And that, my friends, is good for your brain.