Why Our Brains Love Lists And How To Make Better Ones

Lists help us make sense of a chaotic and uncertain world, but we could be so much better at what we’re writing down.

Why Our Brains Love Lists And How To Make Better Ones
[Photo: Flickr user Jim Pennucci]

It’s no secret that people love lists. Ten ways to do this, five ways to do that. Lists are soothing. They’re simple. They provide instant gratification and purpose.


“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” writer and philosopher Umberto Eco famously said. In 2010, Eco’s fondness for the list inspired an exhibit at the Louvre in Paris. In an interview around that time he asked: “How, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible?”

You guessed it: Lists.

Neatly stacked numbered towers of task that we can burn through one at a time and cross off. I used to write things I already accomplished in the day on my to-do list simply for the satisfaction of being able to cross them off. You know what I’m talking about.

Psychologically, the list enables us to digest information in bite-sized form rather than tackling a giant tempest of tasks all at once. Lists gel well with the brain’s cognitive penchant for categorization. They minimize choice and make it easy to process data. As Maria Konnikova put it in the New Yorker, processing information in list-form is “a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale.” It’s just easier to digest.

But how to make lists more useful in our lives?

Write down everything you need to remember

Often our to-do lists leave out a lot of tasks that occupy our attention. There’s a method to this approach–the list will help us focus on what we really need to get done so that the other stuff doesn’t distract. But your brain hangs onto those distractions and if you don’t get them all down on paper, you very well may be setting yourself up for derailment.


David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, known to many simply as GTD, says the first step in making an effective list is to capture everything–that’s 100% of what is competing for your attention–so that it’s all in one place. Once you’ve got it all down, you can then sort through your list and break it into categories, getting rid of what you can’t do anything about, breaking what you can do into actionable steps, and filing what you don’t need to do as urgently in a reference list for later.

Break tasks down until they’re embarrassingly easy

Every to-do list has those perennial repeats–the things we want to do, intend to do, but never actually get done. The reason for this, of course, is we simply don’t know where to start.

If you have something like “do yoga” on your to-do list and you’re not someone who’s ever done yoga, you’re going to have a much harder time tackling that task than if you broke it into many simple steps–find yoga studio, sign up with studio online, buy yoga mat, go to class on Monday at 6 p.m. The tasks you break your list into might be embarrassingly simple–“pick up phone and call yoga studio to ask for class recommendation”–but the simplest actionable step to get you moving forward should be the first thing on your list.

Finish a task before starting a new one

Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that unfinished tasks act as cognitive distractions that negatively effect your performance overall. In the study, participants did worse on a brainstorming task when they were not allowed to finish a simple warm-up task first. That said, those participants who were allowed to make a plan for finishing that initial task where freed from the distraction of having not completed it.

The lesson here: if you can’t finish what you started, before moving on, write down what you have to left to get done in an actionable step on your to-do list. If the act of figure that out seems like it might take just as long as simply finishing your task–well, you know what you need to do. Get to it.


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.