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The Psychology of List Making

List of roles Agnes Martin detailed that she has held for her biography, sent to Arnold Glimcher in 1980. Photo by David Held, via Guggenheim.

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?

My journal is a compendium of lists, not just my to-do items for the day. I’ve got lists of books I want to read or re-read, websites and articles I want to get around to, cities I want to visit, cafes I’ve yet to try or want to go back to, quotes, anecdotes, and soundbites I want to remember. 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.

When we draw back the curtain on the commonplace lists in our lives, it turns out they may be more morally imbued than we think.

The Necessary Virtues in Life

In his pursuit of moral perfection, Benjamin Franklin famously drafted a list of thirteen, what he deemed, ‘necessary virtues in life’. Franklin felt that these virtues if mastered would counteract his unwanted behaviour. They included: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility.

For the romantics out there, I offer Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen’s lists of favourite attributes he felt his wife embodied:

Letter written by Eero for Aline Saarinen. Images courtesy of the Archives of American Art.

My partner and I have used lists to help us make some significant life decisions, including relocating to different states (the quintessential ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ list). You may have done something similar for decisions in your own life - big or small.

No matter whether your lists are as grandiose as Franklin’s, as loving as Saarinen’s, or as benign as the weekly shopping: lists are a testament to our desire to cultivate chaos (or at least attempt to) and make sense of all the messy parts of our lives.

Evidently, 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.

The Transmutation of Goals to Paper

Let’s take a look at the humble To-Do list for starters. It’s advice many of us are 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 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. In the 1920s, Zeigarnik found that people recall finished tasks more accurately than unfinished ones.

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 and that this also led to them being more likely to finish the task in the first place.

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.

Side Tracked, Procrastination and Progress Fear

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.

I used to have a print-out above my work desk that said, “The work you do while procrastinating is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life”, but if I followed that, I’d be living a life of daydreaming, eating all the snacks and scrolling through Pinterest.

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

Rethinking the Role of Lists

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 per cent 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. My partner regularly reminds me that 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 not only the way he approached his work but his entire career trajectory. Instead of To-Do list - he created a Stop Doing List.

In order to start curating your Stop-Doing list, Collins suggests asking the following:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?

  2. What are you are genetically encoded for? What activities do you feel just “made to do”?

  3. What makes economic sense? What can you make a living at?

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

While this works well for the concept of To-Do lists and goals, the same might not be so widely applied to other lists in our lives. In this case, I think it’s fair to forgive ourselves the dynamism of life to steer us off certain courses and into others.

I’m happy to apply a more critical (and hopefully productive) eye to the way I use To-Do and Stop Doing lists in my life, but if my lover were to compile a list of all my favourable attributes, well, I hope I wouldn’t be in quite so much of a rush to dissect and analyse what he might have to say.


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