Use lists to be more productive

How to Use Lists to Be More Productive

I am a big fan of lists. But this isn’t just some weird personality quirk. I had to train myself to become a list-maker after I figured out how important it is to use lists to be more productive.

The reason I did this (and you should too) is because making lists is how you work along with your brain.

Your brain actually needs lists.

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Do You Need to Use Lists to be More Productive?

Here’s the short answer: Yes.

Why do you need to use lists to be more productive, you ask?

Let me explain.

People commonly use external devices to help them accomplish tasks. One of the most obvious examples of this is the simple calendar.

Most people I know keep a calendar to plan their days and weeks.

If you do, too, then you already rely on a tool outside of yourself to help your brain keep things straight.

Interestingly, while most people use a calendar to help them organize their time, very few people make use of other external tools to help them accomplish tasks.

But there are a lot of other tools that could help you in various areas, just like your calendar does.

By far, the most effective tool that I have ever come across is probably also the simplest one: List-making.

Imagine what your life would be like without your calendar. Imagine how chaotic and scattered you’d be. How many appointments would you miss?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why your calendar is such an important tool for you?

Don’t worry; I have.

The reason is this: Your brain can’t do what your calendar does. It simply isn’t wired to keep track of appointments to the level of detail required for you to actually make those appointments.

Your brain is great at solving problems, creating new ideas, remembering stories, and making judgments.

But, as studies have shown, it simply cannot do the kind of tracking and organizing a calendar does.

Now, just think for a moment what your life would be like if you didn’t have a calendar. How chaotic would your life be if you had to keep track all of your appointments in your head?

If your life is anything like mine, that would be a complete and utter mess.

But now think: What if making lists could have just as big of an impact on your life as your calendar does? Think about the possibilities.

Well, I’m here to tell you that making lists really can have just as big of an impact on your life. And – here’s the really good part – they’re insanely easy to make.

So, in the spirit of list-making, here is a list of 7 reasons why using lists will make you more productive.

1. Using lists will make you more productive because they relieve stress

Image of list.

Our brains are not meant to juggle multiple things at the same time. By writing things down, we are able to focus our attention on one thing at a time.

This relieves stress, and when our stress levels go down, our productivity goes up. No longer do we need to spend precious brain power on our own stress and anxiety. We are free to re-channel that brainpower to the far more important tasks on our list.

2. Lists will make you more productive by allowing you to see a complete plan

House plan to illustrate how using lists can make you more productive.

Your brain is, in many ways, a planning center. It sets out the plan for each section of your life.

But sometimes you have incomplete plans. That’s actually quite common.

But incomplete plans make it nearly impossible for your brain to do its work of guiding you through to the completion of the project.

It would be like trying to finish building a house if no roof has been included on the house-plans. Pretty difficult to do.

But, when you write out a list, you can identify where your plans are incomplete and your brain can quickly get to work to complete them.

Then, once you have a complete plan, you will be able to see a definite starting point and a definite finishing point. That is essential in order to actually accomplish what you want to accomplish.

3. Lists will increase your productivity because they give you a way to trace your achievements

Target to illustrate how lists can make you more productive.

You should use lists to be more productive because, as the saying goes, productivity breeds productivity.

What this means is that, with a list, you can easily trace what you accomplish. And, the more you accomplish, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more you will increase your focus and attention on your next set of tasks. This naturally increases your productivity.

Studies have actually shown that tracing your progress in any task is essential for success.

If you really want to succeed, it is essential that you keep a record of your progress as you make it. In other words, you need to keep lists.

4. Using lists will increase your productivity by helping you group and organize tasks

Image of closet to signal how lists can help you stay organized and, therefore, be productive.

A long time ago, I held a job in a manufacturing plant. I remember days my supervisor would ask me to walk 10 minutes to the far side of the plant to check something. Then, after finding what he wanted and walking 10 minutes back, he would come and ask me to go to the same side of the plant again to check something else. This meant that I spent 40 minutes walking back and forth to complete two tasks.

If he had been more organized, I could have made one trip and accomplished both tasks at the same time. That would have saved 20 minutes of walking time that could have been devoted to something else.

If he had written out all the tasks he had for me beforehand, it would have taken him seconds to notice this. But he didn’t. He tried to keep all his tasks in his head. Which meant that I spent a lot of time walking.

He didn’t know that his brain is not wired for managing the kind of data he was asking it to manage.

The issue is that you’re brain is not very good at holding multiple pieces of data and analyzing that data at the same time. It takes far too much brain power to hold pieces of data in your mind for your brain to be able to perform proper analysis (something it is otherwise excellent at).

But, when you write tasks out, you take the task of holding those pieces away from your brain and free it to do what it is best at: Analyzing the data.

This way, you can organize your tasks, bunch them, and sometimes even accomplish two related things at the same time.

5. Lists will help you to be more productive by providing space for nuance

Different color shades to show how lists help give space for nuance, which, in turn, makes you more productive.

I know a lot of people who will scrawl reminder notes to themselves on post-it notes about appointments or emails they need to send.

But writing out a list on a full sheet of paper or in a notebook allows you to add a few more details that might be worth remembering.

For example, if you have to send an email to a client, is there a particular tone you should try and strike? Do you have a connection to their sister you should mention? Do you need to ask them for a favor?

If you have to buy your mother a birthday present, is there a particular store you need to go to or a specific date you need to place your order by?

Even jotting down these simple details will be helpful for you. Not only will save you the time of having to re-hash this information for yourself when you sit down to compose it, but it will actually save you brain-power by allowing your brain the freedom to focus on actually accomplishing the tasks, rather than on remembering details.

6. Writing lists will increase your productivity because lists make things easier for your memory

Image of brain because lists help your memory.

This reason is closely related to the last one.

Our brains do not have infinite power. They are limited. So why force your brain to use its precious power on storage, when you could use it to solve problems and accomplish goals?

There is something called the Zeigarnik effect, which refers to the brain’s ability to remember tasks that have not been completed more easily than tasks that have been completed.

“Why is this important,” you ask?

Well, the reason your brain remembers incomplete tasks more easily than completed tasks is because your brain is actually still thinking about the incomplete tasks.

And, if your brain is thinking about all the incomplete tasks you have, it isn’t focusing fully on the specific task you might be working on in the present moment.

By writing out the incomplete tasks (and including a fair amount of detail), your brain is free to focus on the task at hand. I guarantee that you will notice a tangible difference the first time you do this.

7. Lists will make you more productive because they create space for complexity

Picture of complex formula to show how lists provide space for complexity, which is necessary for productivity.

You should use lists to be more productive because lists allow you to embrace complexity. In this sense, complexity is a good thing.

You see, your brain is good at working with complex things. It can perform analysis on levels we don’t even know about yet.

It might seem counter-intuitive to say that lists allow for complexity. I mean, aren’t they supposed to simplify things?

Well, yes and no.

They create complexity because they can serve as a place-holder at every stage of analysis.

Imagine a rock climber. Every time she takes a step, she resets. She makes sure her footing is safe and that she has a strong grip with her hands before continuing. Then, she takes another step.

It’s the same thing with your brain and lists. You create a list, and then you begin to perform your analysis. As you do this, you can add to your list by including sub-points on items, or by drawing diagrams. It’s okay to get creative.

These little additions are like resetting your feet before you take another step of analysis. If you need to turn around and start again, you just have to go to the last place you know you had sure footing.

In this way, using lists can increase your productivity quite dramatically. They will not only help you accomplish tasks quicker and more efficiently, but they will also help you perform complex tasks better.


So, the reason you should use lists to be more productive is simple: Your brain needs them.

It’s really that simple. If you want to increase your productivity, you need to work with your brain as much as possible.


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