Have you ever noticed all the fun list things that we see on Facebook and Pinterest? Just how famous did David Letterman become because of his infamous Top Ten Lists? How about Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (and the numerous sequels). Habit #3 is all about making lists and prioritizing things. I’m a sucker for lists.
Seems today when I meet people in counseling, they are either list people or not list people. You know which way you lean. I find lists to be useful most of the time but then there are times when lists are the bane of my existence.
Here are some of the benefits I see in using lists:
- Keep me organized (aka calms the chaos)
- Keep me on track with tasks
- Keep me focused on what is needed and what is not
- Keep a history of what ToDo’s are needed
- Enables me to recovery from excessive procrastination.
I am a proponent of lists for folks who are anxious, scattered and overwhelmed. Organization is one of the first things I want explore with someone with anxiety because what’s ‘inside’ tends to show up ‘outside.’ Lists help us sort through the tasks and activities that we keep in our heads. Getting organized helps slow the mind down from the usual whirling. Getting organized outside of our heads is a precursor to dealing with the inside. Physically making a list calms the mind for most folks. Following the list is a different matter!
Keeping on Task
Life can be a series of dependent and independent tasks or activities. Lists help mes identify those things that must be done in a certain order or timeframe in order to proceed to the next thing. Lists of this type make me more efficient and provide me with a sense of productivity. Feeling productive is a huge emotional self-esteem building win, too!
In our household we have used a list of grocery & household staples for years. We keep our in a spreadsheet and print it out beforehand. The list ensures we are considering and buying the things we always use and need. We use the list to check the current inventory of items before shopping so we don’t overstock and create pantry disorganization. This also allows the shopping task to be handed off to someone else in the house thereby making use of someone else’s down time….usually mine. Shopping lists help reduce the drudgery of shopping and make the adventure more efficient. Plus, if we are working on a budget is helps me stay on track and avoid those impulse buys that de-rail our financial goals. I should add Eat before shopping to the top of our list. We all know what happens when we shop before we eat!
Traditionally a list oriented to the male members of the household (yeah! sarcastically) but in reality of today’s single and multi-generational households it requires many folks pitching in. The best tip I have for this is when it comes to changing A/C filters and smoke detector batteries. We use our Google Calendar app. We sync changing our smoke detector batteries to the Fall & Spring time changes. Filter changes are set for the 1st of the month. My wife keeps the calendar so I don’t ignore (procrastinate) the reminders. We also bought filters and batteries in bulk to make it easier to do (less easier to procrastinate). I can never remember the filter size so I wrote mine on the wall in the garage under the light switch.
If you knew me well enough, you would hear me say that I’m a ‘chaos junkie.’ Truer in my past than now but a chaos junkie is someone who, in the presence of order, seeks out additional things (chaos) to fill a void in the life. This is evident in the ‘helium hand’ parents who volunteer (i.e. my wife) when they are already maxxed out with work and family. A chaos junkie seeks to generate more strife in their life. It is completely unconscious, too. Generally, procrastination stems from 1) fear 2) lack of confidence 3) lack of knowledge and 4) lack of desire.
Procrastination for me is how I create chaos in my life. Just ask my wife about filing our taxes. She is not a chaos junkie of my caliber. When procrastination takes hold, creating a list is my go-to solution for putting order and priority back into my life. Following it is where I like to procrastinate some more.
Procrastination can be debilitating for some causing other living problems. I’m sure I will do an entire blog on procrastination in the future.
Example of a List person
I once had a boss that kept a list. It was a huge list. She usually kept a typed version. It was usually 3 pages long with 20 items per page….double-spaced. Now I loved working for this lady so I was keen to watch what she did and emulate if it fit for me. But her lists were insane. I doubt she ever completed a page. She did not use a formal ranking methodology but I figured out where my work issue stood in relation to her other items based on which page she would write it on and where on the page. I was usually a 2nd page guy. I learned she double-spaced just so she could add new items easily. When she retired, I always wondered what poor soul inherited her left over ToDos.
My recommendations for Successful Lists
I recommend you start with a single sheet from a 2.5×2.5 Post-It note pad. Identify 3-5 things you want to do or accomplish and write those on the pad. Front side only. Write in a normal size; no cheating by writing really small. I like Post-It notes because of their size and the sticky strip. I stick mine on my desk (I have one now) and I will stick them in my wallet where I will see it whenever I open it to get a credit card.
I do not suggest more than 5 items because mentally our brains are wired to remember 3-5 items with good recall. If you are an overachiever, go for it. Put more than 5 things. However if you are part of the insane list crowd, pare down your list to something reasonably achievable. The list on my desk has only 4 items so I am what I preach. It had 5 items but I completed one task yesterday. Yeah me!
Unrealistic expectations create unrealistic lists. Creating a list that is not achievable in the time you have available is basically beating up on yourself. A good list begins from a position of success not failure. What time, effort and money do you really have to put towards your list of stuff? Two terms I learned working in corporate America:
OPUD – over promise, under deliver or ….unrealistic/unreliable.
ODUP – over deliver, under promise or…..realistic/more productive.
You can prioritize or rank them before you put them on the list or you can assign a priority afterwards or no priority is fine, too. You can work up to that. I have at times used A, B, C to prioritize things, as well as, 1, 2, 3.. numbering sheme. Now, I tend to build my list with priority in mind. Sometimes I will re-write my list in priority order because life is fluid and subject to change. I’ll confess I have even used both alpha and numeric….but that’s when I violated the rule of 5 items.
Life is subject to change so you need to be somewhat flexible. For some folks this is difficult. To those folks I ask, does being inflexible make you happy or is it part of your discontent? An important man in my life confronted me one day about my inflexibility and said, “The Lord made the trees flexible enough to handle strong winds and he made you the same way!” He said it in a snarky, sarcastic way so I paraphrased it for you guys.
Continue to evaluate your list and your progress against your available resources. You can always use another Post-It note to create a new or updated list based on you progress and resources. This is not only being flexible it is adapting to life…..a very positive living attribute.
Do not make your list a weapon for your own self-destruction. Lists are not tools to be used to beat up ourselves nor others. Do not use your lack of completing a list as a tool to undermine your relationships with others. Do not think badly upon yourself because that’s self-defeating, negative thinking. Failing to complete a list is not a personal failure. We would have to analyze all the circumstances of each item completed versus not completed to determine IF a problem actually exists. Chances are it is not you but life.
Whatever you do, figure out what works for you. If it doesn’t work, you are not likely to be happy with it. For example, I tend to be a pile person. My wife hates it because it does not work for her. But I have good visual recall of what is in each pile. It works for me. My former boss’ list methodology worked for her. It didn’t work for me but I did learn from it.
With lists, I follow what I preach. I will sometimes have 3 lists: work, personal and family. However, I stick to 5 items on each.
Written by Chip Sutherland, LPC Counselor at Cobalt Counseling, LLC, Frisco Texas. Chip specializes in relationship counseling, men’s mental health, teenage angst, anger, depression, anxiety, feeling stuck in life, substance use, life adjustments, work-life balancing and coaching/mentoring.