The psychology of list-makers

Monday 04 November 2019
Some people really love a list. Is there a psychological reason why people find them so satisfying? And do they really make you more productive?
list on a notebook sitting next to a laptop

Lizzie Benton has a list for everything. Literally everything: from her to-do list to her professional goals to date nights with her partner. “We’ve listed out our entire relationship.”

As the founder of people and culture consultancy Liberty Mind, Lizzie has several lists going throughout her day. She uses a bullet journal, and also keeps a ‘best self’ list. “Those are for my day-to-day goals during the week. I also have a Trello board that I use as a diary, which is full of things that I need to do like errands, meetings, and events.”

While lists certainly have other fans like Benton, they are often downplayed and overlooked for much flashier productivity tools. Yet, there are psychological reasons why list-making is so good for productivity – as well as our mental health.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik was one of the first psychologists to look at lists in any kind of depth. Her 1927 study found that people are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than finished ones, and interruptions during a task helped people to retain more details of the task itself. This was dubbed the Zeigarnik Effect.

This comes into play when making a list; by listing a task to achieve, you start the task off. It sets off a subconscious need to make sure the task is completed. “If I’m doing admin or writing a blogpost and something comes into my head, I write that down,” says Benton, “I’m pulling out the stuff that subconsciously I know I need to do and making it into a real thing.”

Baumeister and Masicampo, and the importance of planning

In 2011, psychologists EJ Masicampo and RF Baumeister did their own study following on from Zeigarnik’s. They started with the Zeigarnik Effect and took it one further and tested the impact of unfinished goals on the mind.

Masicampo and Baumeister concluded that “committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate 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.”

In other words, writing to do lists can have a stilling and clearing effect on our minds. Carlene Jackson, founder and CEO of tech company Cloud9 Insight is another list-lover. As she has dyslexia, she relies on lists extensively – dyslexia can often mean it’s difficult to store more than two or three instructions in their head at a time. “I have to write a lot of things down,” Jackson says, “otherwise it’s immensely stressful. I couldn’t imagine any dyslexic being successful in business without being madly into lists. It wouldn’t be possible.”

Carlson and Shu, and the rule of three

Kurt Carlson and Suzanne Shu conducted a study into the cognitive effects of the rule of three in 2007. They found that people naturally see patterns or streaks in things that occur three times. Belief in that pattern emerged and plateaus at three – any further steps in the pattern did not alter beliefs at all. Both Jackson and Benton limit their must-do daily tasks to three; both say it helps them to focus and ensure that they don’t put their energy into the wrong things. The rule of three is a powerful and well-known (if not fully understood) phenomena that manifests itself in many walks of life.

This rule could have a potentially detrimental effect when reading the stock market or playing cards, but in the workplace, the rule of three can be extremely useful. Processing three things at a time can help you focus on the right things. “I always find that even if I’ve only got those three things done, I’ll be happy,” says Benton. “If they’re your top three things to achieve that week, you’ve actually achieved quite a lot.”

Dr Matthews and the role of lists in meeting goals

Dr Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University of California, researched the effect that writing and sharing has on meeting goals and objectives. The study was split into five groups, with the first just thinking about their goals, and the fifth writing a detailed list (with action points) and sending progress reports to a friend. The fifth group did significantly better at achieving their goals than the other four groups, with 76% of group five achieving their goals, and just 43% achieving theirs in group one. “My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals,” Matthews said when it was published.

An anecdote from Jackson backs up the benefits of writing an actionable list, if not the sharing with others. When clearing out her spare room in preparation for the birth of her first child, she found a list of goals she’d written down four years previously and forgotten about. Jackson had written all her goals down with notes and dates for when she wanted to complete them. “Even though the list was buried for years, I’d achieved everything on my list. The birth of my first child was about two months out. I hadn’t been thinking about it at all – it’s almost like the list was manifesting itself in my subconscious.”

For pure productivity and focus, it seems there is nothing better than a list. Plus you get the added satisfaction of ticking it off when you’re done which is, as Benton puts it, “a surge of happiness.”

If you’re looking for more ways to be productive, put checking our online resources and templates on ManagementDirect at the top of your to-do list today!

Image: STIL Unsplash