The Power and Punishment of List-Making

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I love lists.  Passionately.  I cannot remember a time when I didn’t make lists.  All sorts of lists!  Of course, there is the run-of-the-mill type of list, like a grocery list.  And then there are the Really Important Lists, such as the “Bucket List,” filled with the experiences we want to have before we die.

In between, however, are the lists I love the most: To Do lists.  To Do lists help us manage our lives, especially on the days when our lives feel anything but manageable.  Things can be going crazy off the rails, and a glance at my list of tasks for the day brings me back into focus.

And who doesn’t love the experience of getting to the end of the day knowing you completed every single thing on your list for the day?  Or is it just me who ranks that experience among my life highlights?

Sure, lists can be helpful to keep us organized, and they can also help us achieve great things by directing our focus.  But list-making can also have a dark side.  Ending your day with an unfinished To Do list can be demoralizing, causing you to beat yourselves up over your inability to stay on task and follow through.  This serves no one.

My list-making evolution

I used to make what I now quaintly refer to as “Highly Optimistic Daily To Do” lists.  For as long as I can remember, my life has been brimming over with responsibilities in multiple areas, causing all sorts of tasks that needed completion.  The way I figured it, if I could get it all down on paper, I could tick off the list and achieve nirvana by dinnertime.

“The way I figured it, if I could get it all down on paper, I could tick off the list and achieve nirvana by dinnertime.”


In addition to daily or routine tasks, my list would include additional chores or To Do items.  I would start each day with a list of a few dozen items, lined up like soldiers and ready to be systematically dispatched.

The trouble was, it wasn’t humanly impossible to complete all those items in any given day.  And I’m sorry to say that it took me an inordinately long time to fully grasp my limitations in this regard.

Here’s an example.  On a typical workday, I might have five client appointments, ranging in duration from forty-five to ninety minutes each.  Most appointments require at least one hour.  Therefore, in an eight-hour workday, 5 – 7.5 hours were occupied by meetings with clients.  Best case, I would have three hours to do other work.  Worst case (and frankly, the most common scenario), I would have only thirty minutes.  Thirty minutes for the rest of my tasks!

Even knowing I had a day like this scheduled, I would start the day armed with a list of a dozen or more tasks that needed to be done.  When, exactly, these tasks would get done was, and remains, a mystery.  Nevertheless, I had the eternal optimism that I would work it out and Get That Shit Done.  Care to guess what my success percentage was?  Not pretty, that is for sure.

All too often, I would get to the end of what by anyone’s measure would be considered a successful and fulfilling workday feeling like a failure.  How could I not have gotten all these important tasks done??  My mood would plummet, effectively ruining my evening.

Stupid, right?  But true, I’m embarrassed to admit.  I felt like a failure because I couldn’t get things done.

Captain Obvious strikes again

I know what you are thinking, so I’ll just address it right here:  I had issues that might include the following:

  • A serious lack of awareness about how time works,
  • Dreadful time-management skills, or
  • Too many damn things to do in the first place.

“Underlying all my efforts had been the belief that I truly can get it all done.  All of it.  Every last bit of it.”


For complete transparency, I’ll admit it was a combination of all those things.

Over many years, I have tried numerous tools and techniques to get myself squared away.  Underlying all my efforts has been the belief that I truly can get it all done.  All of it.  Every last bit of it.  (And not go crazy in the interim.)

These days, I am much improved, thanks for asking.  Here are some list-oriented techniques I have employed that have improved my life.

Brain dumping and list consolidation

From time to time, I just start writing down little nit-picky things that are on my mind.  If a random task pops to mind, I write it down.  Other times, I just spend a few minutes brain-dumping whatever To Do items I can think of.

A related form of brain dumping that has been helpful for me is list consolidation.  I use a Bullet Journal now, but I don’t always want to add random bits in there.  As a result, out come the sticky notes.  Before long, I’ll have a handful of stickies stuck to my desk.  Periodically, I’ll take a few minutes and consolidate all those little lists into one page in my Bullet Journal I title “Brain Dump.”  Classy, no?

From time to time, I read through that page and mark off the items that I completed or find the ones that are now on fire and move them to my daily list.

Master lists

Not unlike the brain dump list, my master list is a catch-all.  I like to keep my life compartmentalized into various work projects and the ambiguous category I call “Home,” which encompasses many things.  On a single page, I divide the page into four quadrants and label them with my three main work projects plus “Home.”

In these quadrants, I keep a running list of things coming up that need to be done.  I refer to this list regularly to move items onto my daily list.

Daily To Do list

Some productivity experts suggest that you have no more than three main priorities each day.  Three is a bit limiting for me, I confess.  Instead, I consider what sort of day I have that day and decide how many items are appropriate to add to my workload accordingly.  For a day like I described above, my task list will be light, recognizing that I simply do not have enough hours to get many things done.  (I’m learning!)

A work in progress, I definitely still have days where I overshoot and list far more things than I can reasonably complete in that day.  Nevertheless, it is a better system than when I would have my ENTIRE To Do list freshly written up for the day.

Time blocking

This is the secret sauce for me, friends, and I wrote about it in another post.  On one side of my daily page in my Bullet Journal, I sketch in a quick grid of the day in half-hour increments.  I then block in the things I have scheduled.  This gives me a good visual representation of the time available for the day.  Next, I block in time for my biggest priorities for the day, which may include things like “write blog post.”

Time blocking helps me in two related ways.  First, the visual I get after filling in appointments and other obligations allows me to gauge how many things to add to my daily task list.  This helps prevent feeling like a loser at dinnertime when the workday is complete, and I still have 30 things on my list.

Secondly, using the time blocking system to add my priority tasks right to my daily calendar has been huge.  For some reason, having it scheduled makes it far more likely I will actually accomplish it, versus just having it on my To Do list.

Routines and rituals

The final list-oriented technique that has helped me stay sane is routine building.  In order to prevent forgetting daily tasks like cleaning the litter box, I used to list them on my daily To Do list.  Of course, this made for increased dopamine hits when I got to cross off those easy tasks.  But that satisfaction was offset by the fact that my list would be far longer than I really wanted it to be.  Visually, it made my day seem cluttered.  And I don’t like clutter.

My solution was to create a morning routine that encompassed those daily tasks.  For example, while my tea is brewing in the morning, I clean and fill the pet water dishes and empty the litter box.  Once this became a habit, I no longer had to remind myself of daily tasks such as those.

Tasks that are part of routines no longer belong on my To Do list.

In summary, love ‘em or hate ‘em, lists can be valuable tools for getting things done.  The key is to find a method for list-making that works for you.


Do you make lists?  Share below!  Or if you want to start a discussion with some like-minded friends, join the free SimpleMoney Community on Facebook to share your thoughts!

And hey, if you are a self-professed Productivity Nerd, let me know.  I’m cooking up something for 2020 that you might want to know about!  Email me at


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