If You Aren't Writing To-Do Lists, Here's Why You Need To Start

As the beginning of a new semester comes to fruition, college students ease back into classes, jobs, internships, and applications. While this may be an easy transition for some, it is not that way for me. 

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and attention-deficit disorder, the sudden addition of numerous tasks can cause me to feel paralyzed by  panic. When this happens, my mind is overflowing and overworking in a disorganized frenzy. I often will be unable to talk or move because I just can’t sort out what to do first. 

Thankfully, the last time this type of episode got the better of me was a couple years ago before I started making lists. As with many of my big life lessons, I learned the importance of making lists  from my mother. 

My version of “lists”

If you are like me, you hate journaling or keeping a diary. Let me assure you, lists are not like that. On a good day, my list looks like the work of one of those girls we all knew in high school who took notes in every shade of the rainbow and had that near computerized hand-writing. On a bad day, my list looks like a five-year-old’s art work. 

My point is: lists are purely everything you need to accomplish within a given day or week, just written on paper. The tasks are then ordered from highest priority and/or earliest due date, to least priority and/or latest due date. 

List in a journal Original photo by Gabby Esposito

Let me tell you what lists are not. They are not a planner or calendar that you can neatly map out your entire life on for the next week or month. What if it doesn’t go as planned? Lists are also not journals or diaries in which you force reflection or write down a play-by-play of your past. You can, of course, do all these things if you want —  I’m sure they can better your mental health in some way. However, I want to clarify that I never liked keeping all of the above (journals, diaries, calendars, or planners), yet I do love to keep lists. 

Why lists will change your life

Lists “happen” for me in one of two ways: before a meltdown or after. One of them often results in a tear-drenched paper. This is okay! Let yourself be upset and stressed for a moment, but then gather a pen and paper. Whenever your mind is racing and you feel like you have a lot to do, you’ll know it’s time to get out your list-making equipment. I am holding my pinky up to my laptop right now, promising that once you are done making a list you’ll feel a lot better. Let me tell you why…

The act of writing a list is productive in itself. Instead of complaining, dwelling on, or crying for longer than necessary, writing a list of all that you need to accomplish is time well spent! The time you take to organize your thoughts on paper is not followed by guilt. It is — in and of itself — the first step that can be crossed off your list once you finish writing it. 

List-making cleans your most important space — your mind. You know that room that’s often cluttered? The one that will stay with you your whole life? I am talking about your brain! Writing down everything is the mental version of cleaning. According to an article from Toodledo, “The average person's short-term memory can only hold 7 pieces of information for about 30 seconds. If you have more than 7 tasks that you need to remember, you are already set up for failure.” 

With a list, the weight of remembering everything is taken off your shoulders. A cluttered mind is no better than a cluttered room; they both add extra anxiety to what you need to accomplish. A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed how future tasks distract us and take away from our current work, but making a plan to get them done relieves a lot of anxiety and improves our work. Once the list is done, you can put all your energy into each individual task. Once list items are  done and crossed off, you can forget about them entirely.

The act of physically writing it and visualizing it is powerful. When you write a list, your jumbled, abstract thoughts can be materialized and solidified on the  paper in front of you. Whether the list is long, short, messy, or neat, the physical act of creating and visualizing what seems complex can help with your productivity tremendously. 

Moreover, structure matters. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, told The Guardian that “Anyone with a full schedule and no structure will struggle to cope.” Writing reminders is just not enough, according to Allen. 

That feel-good feeling that comes with finishing a task is typically multiplied as you get to physically cross it off. The proof of what you have accomplished is a pat on the back; a valuable gratification that you can conquer difficult things.

Laptop and notebook Photo by Nick Morrison from Unsplash

While I don’t like to admit that my life depends on a notebook, it is entirely true. Looking back at all the days lists have gotten me through, I am not ashamed. 2020 threw a lot at us. The whirlwind that life can be, especially in this day and age, can often prevent us from remaining grounded. A virtual world has taken away the physical relationship we have with much of our life. We are left sitting in front of our screens for most of the day where all the tasks we need to accomplish blend together into one bright rectangle. We lack structure, purpose, and material interaction. Making lists may not completely restore these healthy aspects of our life, but it will certainly improve each day.