How to bring order to the chaos of life with a simple list

Do you enjoy the feeling of crossing an item off your to-do list?

I love the feeling.

I think, “Go me! Look at you go!” as I strike the pen through the list item.

But as good as it feels to cross things off, it’s not really about that. That’s not where the power of lists resides.

The power exists in making the list in the first place. Getting the thoughts out of your head and down on paper.

In his book Keep going: 10 ways to stay creative in good times and bad Austin Kleon states:

“Lists bring order to the chaotic universe. I love making lists. Whenever I need to figure out my life, I make a list. A list gets all your ideas out of your head and clears the mental space so you’re actually able to do something about them.

When I’m overwhelmed, I fall back on the old-fashioned to-do list. I make a big list of everything that needs to get done, I pick the most pressing thing to do, and I do it. Then I cross it off the list and pick another thing to do. Repeat.”

Keep going by Austin Kleon

When I’m feeling really under the pump, I’ll go for a walk and scribble out a list while I’m walking.

I’m not sure which activity helps me more – the walking or the list making – but by the time I arrive home from my walk, I always feel less anxious and more in control.

If you haven’t been having much luck with to-do lists, you may have fallen into one of the following common traps:

1. Fuzzy list items

If you look at your list and it says says things like ‘Mum’s birthday’ or ‘Study’, it’s time to make these list items crispy.

Crispy is a Behaviour Design term created by Stanford university Professor BJ Fogg. When you make a behaviour crispy, you get really clear on the specific behaviour you need to carry out.

Here are some examples I came up with to illustrate the difference between fuzzy and crispy list items:

Fuzzy to-do list item: Mum’s birthday
Crispy to-do list item: Call mum to wish her happy birthday after lunch

Fuzzy to-do list item: Study
Crispy to-do list item: Open Quizlet study deck and test myself for 5 minutes on the bus

When you ‘crispify’ a list item, you tighten it up. You make it crystal clear for your brain what you need to do next. This in turn makes it much easier for you to get started.

2. Your to-list has gone stale

If your list is no longer working for you, feel free to abandon it and create a new one. As Psychiatrist Douglas Puryear says in his book Your life can be better:

“I make lists over and over, all day long. It’s not just about having the list; there is also benefit in making them. Writing down what I need to do is somehow calming and organizing, and therefore motivating. When I write things down, it’s as though I’m on top of them.”

Our brains get bored easily, so try making your list a little bit different every now and then.

Here are some simple ideas on how you can jazz up your next to-do list:

  • Make a mind map (with each item as a branch)
  • Use a yellow legal pad
  • Write it on a whiteboard (and enjoy wiping off each item)
  • Put each task on a separate post-it note
  • Use a different colour pen
  • Try using an online program like Complice
  • It doesn’t matter what medium or what materials you use to create your to-do list. What matters is that you get everything out of your head and you make each list item crispy.

    3. Your to-do list is making you feel overwhelmed

    Overwhelmed by a long list

    If your to-do list is causing you to have a mini meltdown, back up. Ask yourself . . .

    “Is this list too long? Can I cross a few things off?”

    Create a short list from your big list – just three items (post-it notes are good for this). Then put away your long list. When you’ve completed those three items, create a new list of three from your long list.

    To sum up

    During times of chaos, lists are your friends. Reach out and use this fabulous tool to lighten your mental load. You don’t need any special skills or talent to do this. Lists are for everyone.