If I asked you to name something exciting and magical, lists probably wouldn’t pop into your mind.
In fact, making lists used to strike me as an endeavor that was downright pointless. I already know what I have to do, how is writing the things down on a to-do list going to help?
To begin, there are the practical benefits of creating lists. When you write something down, you no longer have to expend as much mental energy to keep track of it. In a way, the paper becomes an extension of your brain, giving you more brainpower in total. And while your brain on its own might forget stuff, items do not spontaneously erase themselves from your to-do list.
Another practical benefit is that putting things in a list makes it easier to prioritize, compare and organize them. If you have a written list of goals, for example, it’s easier to go through and plan out how you’ll have to divide up your time to accomplish these goals.
Beyond these practical advantages, though, I think there’s a loftier, psychological benefit of keeping lists. Putting something on a list is the first step in translating it from thought into action.
Adding something to a list might seem like a small action, but it takes that thing from being intangible to being tangible. Once it’s on a list, it’s there, visible, right in front of you, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s no longer a pure thought that can be shoved to the back of your mind by saying, “I’ll get around to it later.”
Thoughts are individual and fleeting. “Oh, I need to schedule that appointment” crosses your mind and disappears. But when you make something tangible by adding it to a list, it gains strength in numbers.
It becomes part of the larger group of the list it’s on. If it’s on a to-do list, for example, it joins the general category of “things I need to do.” This is helpful because rather than remembering to do each item individually, you can set aside blocks of time for crossing items off your list.
The paradox of lists is that writing something down doesn’t change the thing in and of itself, but by bridging the gap from thought to action and by providing strength in numbers, it can give that thing new momentum.
That momentum, in turn, can be make the difference in doing something you never otherwise would have gotten around to.
And if that’s not exciting and magical, I don’t know what is. (Except maybe unicorns.)