Why writing a list can kill stress and keep you sane

Writing lists can help you manage not only your workload, but also yourself and your sanity. No-one is suggesting that you become an obsessive-compulsive freak and list down everything you need to do from writing a business plan to visiting the bathroom.

Why writing a list can kill stress and keep you sane

Keep the purpose of writing a list in perspective.

Like anything else, writing a list that’s actually going to be useful for you requires a heavy drizzling of common sense as well as content. Here are some ideas on how to make it work well for you.

Writing a list is the first step to stop feeling overwhelmed

Dr. Tim Pychyl is an expert in the area of procrastination research,” writes Divya Pahwa in an article on Psych Central. “He (Dr Pychyl) argues that you feel an immediate sense of accomplishment simply by writing down all the tasks you would like to complete, without completing any one of them. Your brain will simulate the success you would like to feel.” 

I’m no psychologist, but what stresses me out is not the fact I have lots to do – it’s that I don’t know a) what those things are and b) in what order I should tackle them.

Ergo, I am not in control. Writing a list makes me feel that I am back in control of my little life and my little brain.

Don’t let your list become a ball and chain, though

“Most people are using their To Do list as a measure for self-worth,” says Vanessa Loder in Forbes Entrepreneur, “and this is a huge mistake.”

I wonder if Vanessa Loder and Dr Pychyl would argue this point … but as always there is a happy medium. Just because you feel a sense of accomplishment purely by writing a list in the first place does not mean you have to be a slave to it until midnight. Keep the purpose of writing a list in perspective.

One thing I do that may help you keep your ToDo list manageable (and stress-relieving) is to take a leaf out of my book (sorry, pun) and write one list for a whole week. I jot all this down on the weekend section of my diary and then cherry-pick items off it for the various days throughout the week.

Ostensibly I prioritise…but sometimes I slip and put the more agreeable tasks first. I call that self-rewarding, but you may justifiably call it self-indulgent…

How to keep the feel-good factor throughout writing a list

This point seems to be common across many “guru’s” articles and here, both Vanessa Loder and Divya Pahwa on Psych Central agree. To quote Divya in this article there:

“To get the task-completion rush all you really need is a shorter list. Write down no more than three tasks on your daily to-do list. You may have a second, ongoing list that keeps track of the tasks coming down the pipeline. Prioritize them by importance.”

“Ask yourself: “which task will make me feel most accomplished?” That is task No. 1. After you have three tasks listed, put any overflow tasks on a separate piece of paper that you can easily tuck away. Keep it out of sight.”

Plenty of feel-good factor there, then. Whether that’s always practicable may be another thing, but hey: lists are supposed to make us feel better – not more stressed and schizoid.

And my own take on that? Hmmm, well I do that in a way by sub-dividing my weekly list down into bite-sized chunks. So, yes – if it works for me it could well work for you too.

Writing a list digitally or by hand?

Here’s where the new digital danglies can crash head-on into psychology that’s been in our brains for millenniums. Let’s open this can of worms with my own, incredibly unscientific notion: if I write my list out by hand I remember it far better than if I key it into my phone, tablet, desktop, etc.

Yes, I am a words/text driven learner. Writing by hand comes more naturally to me because computers only entered my childhood after I had learned handwriting. But writing by hand somehow implants the information into my feeble brain far more effectively than any other way.

I write out shopping lists and forget to take them shopping, but because I have written them by hand I remember everything that was on them. Because I hate Sat Navs I work out where I need to go and write out the directions, by hand, in my own peculiar shorthand. I never get lost even if I forget the directions. Why? I have written them out by hand and memorised them without even trying.

Here’s some science to back up handwriting a list – sort of

Maybe it’s something to do with hand-to-eye co-ordination or some other aspect of biological issues, but whacking away on typewriter or keyboard keys sucks, so it seems, when it comes to implanting the message in the human brain. The following excerpt from the publication Advances in Haptics** expands on the differences involved…

“Handwriting is by essence a unimanual activity, whereas typewriting is bimanual. Typically, handwriting is also a slower process than typewriting. Moreover, the visual attention of the writer is strongly concentrated during handwriting; the attentional focus of the writer is dedicated to the tip of the pen, while during typewriting the visual attention is detached from the haptic input, namely the process of hitting the keys.” 

“Another major difference pertains to the production of each character during the two writing modes. In handwriting, the writer has to graphomotorically form each letter – i.e., produce a graphic shape resembling as much as possible the standard shape of the specific letter. In typewriting, obviously, there is no graphomotor component involved; the letters are “readymades” and the task of the writer is to spatially locate the specific letters on the keyboard.”

So how should we write our lists to keep ourselves sane and stress-free?

Much as I appreciate the way digital communication is where it’s at in so many ways, personally I still prefer writing my lists by hand and still I fervently hang on to handwritten information by my fingernails. OK, I grew up only at the beginning of the pre-digital era.

However it’s interesting to see how many young people – my own son included, and he’s just 24 – are not quite as wedded to “digitalia” for absolutely everything as the Microsofts of this world would have us believe.

But let’s not forget that this article is not about me, my son, or the experts whom I have quoted. It’s about you.

Given that writing lists is a good idea to help you manage your life and your sanity, sit back for a moment and consider how writing lists will work for you. And then, do it.

What advice can you share about the value of writing lists?

Please let us know what works for you!

**From the publication Advances in Haptics
Edited by Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh
ISBN 978-953-307-093-3
Publisher: InTech Open Access