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Here’s Why You Love Making Lists

Close-up of man writing plans in notebook at his workplace
Are you a list maker? If so, how far do your lists go? Some people make lists for work and errands, others have their whole life listed: from their life goals, to their relationships, to their morning routines.

The psychology behind productivity has been studied since the 1800s, and list-making since the 1920s. Here’s what science has to say about your love for list-making, and why it really does contribute to your ability to accomplish tasks.

1. Lists Motivate You

The first study on lists was done by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927. She made the conclusion that when it comes to our productivity, our brains are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than finished ones (an extension of negativity bias). This was coined the Zeigarnik Effect. Therefore, your brain is constantly focusing on what needs to be done. By creating lists, you not only need not focus on those pending tasks (as you’ve written them down), but you can also see and feel a sense of accomplishment, reminding you of what has been done, and helping you to feel better.

2. On Paper and Out Of Mind

Psychologists EJ Masicampo and RF Baumeister built on this idea in their 2011 studies, where they concluded that making lists really can help you to focus on the tasks at hand. By writing down your to-dos, your brain does not have to keep them in your immediate memory, and this has a calming effect that can boost your clear-headedness and focus.

Masicampo and Baumeister wrote that “committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate the attainment of the goal, but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended – allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease – and is resumed at the specified later time.”

3. Clearing Mental Space

The idea that our brains have limited space to keep things top of mind was studied in 2007 by Karlson and Shu, who observed the Rule of Three at work in our daily routines. The rule of three is a phenomenon that appears in nature and across many different aspects of life (like comedy, writing, and even in the animal kingdom). But in Karlson and Shu’s work, the rule was observed from a cognitive standpoint. They found that 3 was a magic number for productivity. The brain can remember, focus on, and achieve three things much better than it can four. They concluded that limiting your large, daily tasks to three each day (and then, of course, smaller tasks afterward). Can prove to be much more productive.

The psychology behind the list-making and achieving satisfaction is well studied, and shows that lists can help to ease our anxiety, improve our focus by sharing the load of cognitive space and itemizing our to-dos, and even provide us with a better view of the accomplishments we have made, making us that much more motivated. Actually seeing where we are in our workday can help provide the motivation we need to get it done. Not to mention, the satisfaction of crossing it off and completing a list.

 

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