Make a List. Your Brain Will Thank You.

Lists can literally take things off your mind. Image from
Last month with my birthday approaching, I sat down and made a list.  Not a list of gifts I wanted, but a list of ways I would like to spend my day:
have coffee and an almond croissant
go to a museum
take a nap
walk around the city
bake something

Though my birthday has passed (I had a great day, and did do a number of things on that list) I've kept the list posted up near my desk.  It serves as a reminder of things that make me happy. I feel happy just looking at it.

Lists can be a vehicle for satisfaction and even joy; they can facilitate focus, relief, and clarity.  (Lists can also stress you out, more on that, and the cardinal rule of list-keeping, later.)  Crossing things off a list is one of life's simple pleasures.

Ever notice how putting something on a list can take it "off your mind"?   There's a neurological basis for this effect.   As David Rock explains in his book Your Brain At Work, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) -- the part of the brain engaged in conscious thought, interaction, and decision-making -- has very limited resources.

Try to hold too many things in your conscious mind at once, and your PFC will become overloaded.  You'll inevitably drop some things and lose track of others.  Thoughts you've already had but failed to do anything about will pop back up at the most inconvenient times.

But externalize those thoughts by making lists, and you will essentially expand your mind. By taking thoughts out of rotation in your PFC and putting them on a list, you will free up precious brain space to have new ideas and make decisions about existing ones.   This is what productivity-guru David Allen means when he says, "your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."

I asked my friends what kinds of lists they keep, and their answers spanned from the mundane (groceries, chores) to the sublime (inspirational ideas, big wishes).  Their lists express both the the need to simply keep moving, and the desire to keep life moving forward.

Here are just some of the lists kept by a handful of my friends:

bike trips
songs I like
business ideas
people to care for in my congregation
thank you notes to write
groceries to buy (staples/specific meals)
bills to pay
chores (as authored by the list-owner's partner)
wish lists for big ideas
things to pack for trips
great movies  I've seen
short-term goals
long-term goals
people I've been meaning to hang out with
master project list
places I want to visit
things I  want to learn
inspiring ideas
things to look forward to

I keep the core Getting Things Done lists: Next Actions, Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe.   I keep store-specific shopping lists and lists of blog post ideas. I've always kept a list of activities that make me happy (much like my birthday list).

I was inspired by blogger Jennifer Ketcham to keep not only this happy list (she calls it a "Hooray" list) but also to keep an "Uh-Oh"list.  Jennifer's "Uh-Oh" list enumerates the signs that she is slipping into a rut; it includes things like letting dishes pile up, watching too many Law & Orders in a row, and letting voicemail go unchecked.  When she notices these things happening, she does what she needs to do to prevent herself from slipping further into this undesired state.

The cardinal rule of list maintenance is this:  Review Often, and Let Things Go. As much joy as lists can bring, when they get stale they will fill you with dread.  Who wants to look at a list of things you once committed to doing but now no longer have the time/resources/desire to do?  Ugh.  If you wanted to learn Spanish a year ago but no longer care to, take "buy Spanish instructional books" off of your daily to-do list.  Move it to a Someday/Maybe list, or erase it altogether.

If your lists feel "heavy" to you -- if there are parts of your lists your eyes skip over or your mind tries to avoid -- this is a good sign that it's time to review your commitments.  Either do it, schedule it to be done, or take it off the list.

What kinds of lists do you keep?  How do you keep your lists fresh and relevant?

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