Why You Should Organize Your Life With Lists

Under my “irrelevant blog post images” list, I found “yawning cat.” Lists are amazing!

Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.

I’m not impressed when someone can memorize the sequencing of pi to 100,000 places. Do you know why?

Because a (large) piece of paper accomplishes the same thing. A computer can calculate and show that information instantly and on demand.

You’re telling me that your brain has all the power of the spiral notebook I bought at the dollar store. (Before you think that’s a devastating insult, consider that notebooks are extremely underrated! It’s merely a standard insult.)

Okay, FINE. I admit my brain is weak and pitiful in comparison to these cranial champions. But this skill, in many respects, is flexion of an overrated muscle. It’s like if a bodybuilder flexed a special muscle in the arch of his foot at a competition.

Brain: “Dawg, Don’t Make Me Remember All Dat Jank” (sic)

I’m not very good at managing ALL of the stuff I want to do with my life in my head.

Nobody is.

The human brain isn’t designed to store information. I mean, it can certainly do that to a point, but the brain’s differentiating strength and value is in analyzing and skillfully manipulating information. Case in point: a computer can easily recite more pi numbers than any person, faster and more reliably. But a computer can’t (yet?!) write the next great novel, which is, in technical terms, merely a creative organizing of known information.

Harry Potter, the most successful book series of all time, has generated billions of dollars across different mediums. I was in Universal Studios Orlando last month and let me just say, some people really like Harry Potter. I saw a middle-aged man in a cape, holding a wand, without a hint of shame. He was all in on Potter.

Think about this: This mega successful book series can be broken down into 26 letters of the English alphabet (and punctuation and stuff), sequenced in a way that people apparently really like. You or I could have done it, technically speaking. A computer is capable of sequencing a practically unlimited number of characters in any combination, including the Harry Potter books. But J.K. Rowling’s creative expression of those 26 letters is her own creation because human creativity is well beyond the creative ability of the most advanced supercomputer.

Maybe that’s why you’ve heard of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling but not Akira Haraguchi, the guy who recited pi beyond 100,000 places. I don’t want to discount Mr. Haraguchi’s amazing accomplishment. In fact, I want to draw your attention to how he did it. Memory masters like him surprisingly showcase the same type of human strength as J.K. Rowling, even though the end result makes them seem uh, robotically gifted?

To memorize large amounts of data requires activating the creative side of the brain. Here’s how Haraguchi did it, via The Guardian:

“Haraguchi associates each digit with a syllable: 0, for example, can be read as o, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wo, on or oh, and so on with the others from 1 to 9. He then makes stories from the words produced by the syllables.”

Haraguchi accomplished his feat by making a story, a very creative solution to what seems like a “brute force” challenge. What does any of this have to do with lists? I’m glad I asked myself.

Lists Boost Your Creative Power By Storing Important Information For You

Now that we understand that the brain’s natural strength is creative manipulation of data, the next question is… How can we leverage it?

We need to rid ourselves of the need to store and categorize information.

Lists never forget, they’re reliable, and they act as a sort of extension of your brain. Lists are the best way to organize most aspects of your life. When you create a list in a reliable and accessible place (like on your cell phone, saved to the cloud), it’s like upgrading the storage of your brain to a more trustworthy and less burdensome place.

If you don’t currently manage a large part of your life with lists, you are objectively doing it wrong. Lists are universally effective because they are the simplest way to categorize and store information outside your brain.

The key with lists is knowing when and how to use them.

Lists You Might Want to Have

The general to-do list is the most well known and popular list, and it’s decent as a day planner. But the world of lists has so much more to offer us! You should consider having a dedicated list for…

Books you want to read: Have sublists based on genre or your purpose for reading. It’s weird to have just-for-fun fiction reading alongside research books alongside cookbooks. I mean, how is your brain supposed to decide? That’s like asking your brain if it would rather have a paper bag or a girlfriend. Obviously, you’d take the paper bag because it can hold more objects at one time, but they’re two completely different categories of things! Likewise, when you want to read a new book, it may be for a specific reason, and then you can consult that specific list. Even if you just want to read any new book, you can begin by narrowing your search by genre.

Places you want to see: The world is a large place. You might want to see parts of it. I do. Write them down in a list somewhere and when the travel bug bites you, you’ll know exactly where to look. Sublists can help you prepare for each location. If you’re really good, you’ll know exactly how much money you need to save for each place, what time of year you want to visit, and how long you’d like to stay in each place.

Movies (or shows) you want to see: Edgar Wright is my favorite director. Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz… I love them. So when my ex-roommate (I’m nomadic right now) and I decided to watch a movie, I was almost horrified when I suggested [irrelevant movie] and he suggested Baby Driver, the latest Edgar Wright film! I had forgotten to watch the movie by my favorite director, for months… This could have ruined my life. Maybe. Probably not. Whatever. It was still upsetting and now I have a list to make sure I don’t miss don’t-miss movies (that’s not a typo, read it again).

Dreams you want to accomplish: Make this one private so that you’re not embarrassed on your deathbed. I’m kidding. I know you’ll accomplish everything. But to make that happen, you’ll need this list. Why? Three reasons.

  1. You’ll be reminded of it more often than once every 17 years.
  2. Writing it down elevates it from a “LOL yeah right!” idea to a “Dang, I wrote it down. I might actually try to do it” idea. Writing things down creates a much greater sense of intention, which is one of the most powerful and important action generators.
  3. Writing down the big, massive goal is a great opportunity to create subgoals. Subgoals and sub-subgoals make impossible goals doable. Any decent list software will have this capability (my recommended one does).

Workouts: If you lift weights, you probably have something like “push, pull, legs” or “upper, lower” to segment your days. Create lists of all of the different exercises you can do on those days (if you want some variety). Or create specific lists of exercises, sets, and reps for specific days. This isn’t new information, it’s just important information if you want real results in the gym. (Note: I was only able to do this sort of thing after developing a fitness mini habit, which decreased my resistance to exercising.)

Habits: If you know anything about me, you know that I won’t shut up about habits. I’ve written three books about it, and yet, I STILL blog about it. In my defense, habits are the behavioral foundation of every human life (literally). By default, we depend on our habits every day. When we’re stressed, we depend on our habits even more. Whether it’s mini habits or some other (inferior) strategy, write down the habits you want to build, and how you intend to do them every day. Read my books if you want to do it without restarting every two weeks.

Ideas (mega list): Ideas are the spice of life, and also the spice of your list’s life. People generate new ideas every day in a lot of different areas. I constantly get ideas for things to write, ways to solve my problems, things I could do for fun, ways to improve my life, funny skits, how to be a better friend, how to make my life simpler, and more. If you don’t think you have ideas, it’s because you always let them die before you capture them. Ideas have a small time window from their inception to their gruesome death, so have a list ready to save them!

“Ideas” is probably too vague a term for a single list, since almost all thoughts can be considered ideas, but it’s a solid starting point for generating useful lists. For example: career ideas, romantic gesture ideas, business ideas, story ideas, new hobby ideas, or ideas of fun things to do. You could do a structure like…

Ideas

Business ideas

  • Sell cotton candy to construction workers at lunch
  • Create a MLM ponzi scheme disguised as “owning your own business”
  • Steal fruit from neighbor’s tree and sell it back to him as fruit juice

Romantic ideas

  • Take her to Wendy’s, and secretly get her an extra order of fries ❤
  • Give her some leftover cotton candy (from work)
  • Tell her about how she too can own her own business… and then surprise her with a kiss
  • This is why I’m single, isn’t it?

Hey, I never said my ideas were good. The important part is showing you the structure. In the following app I’m about to recommend, you could make “Ideas” the main folder, so that all of the sublists and ideas in them could collapse into it when not in use. (See the picture below for an example: all the reading lists with their own lists of books collapse into the “Read” folder.)

Software Recommendation: Wunderlist

The number of software applications for lists is overwhelming. But you can always go with classic pen(cil) and paper. That still works.

I’m just going to recommend one that I saw my sister using. I was so impressed by the interface, simplicity, and functionality, that I downloaded it immediately on my phone (Android). It syncs with my Macbook app, too. I believe it’s on all major platforms and it’s free, though they have upgrade options (that I haven’t tried yet).

It’s called Wunderlist. As far as I can tell, it’s as simple as possible in most ways. From the way it’s displayed to the way you add new lists and create folders, it’s intuitive and easy. To the right is a screenshot of my reading folder with categorized lists. I LOVE that it shows you how many items are in each list.

You can set deadlines on any item in any list, so there’s a lot of flexibility in how you use it. At this point, I’m just using it as a reference tool for things like books to read. I’ve found that deadline-type lists get really annoying if you miss a deadline or seven and then feel like you have to catch up (and then you just give up because it stresses you out).

I’m hesitant to use it as a calendar or to-do list app. At the moment, I like it more for referencing — movies to see, books to read, article ideas, book ideas, places I want to see, etc. These sorts of lists will never expire, and will always be helpful to reference when I need them.

Another clever feature for Wunderlist is the inbox, which is a catch-all for ideas that don’t fit in a designated list.

The Importance and Power of Sublists

The ability of this app to create sublists is critical. Many items on lists are projects that require multiple steps. For these, being able to create a sublist helps your brain understand exactly what it needs to do to “Visit China.” Your sublists can include getting your passport, reading a guidebook, looking up the cost of the trip (budgeting, which will give you a target amount to save up), planning your route, buying plane tickets, lodging logistics, and more. Now the vague idea is a real possibility!

Sublists are critical because they break things down into their individual components. For this reason, I think apps like wunderlist are perfect for list making and managing. Unlike pen(cil) and paper, you can digitally delete, move, and modify your lists and sublists very easily. Visually, digital apps are better suited for sublists.

I have no affiliation with Wunderlist and no incentive to promote their app, other than the fact that I like it. My plan is to begin with “passive” reference lists, and slowly and carefully consider new types of lists. I want to have these lists for life, meaning I don’t want to overcomplicate this and toss the whole thing aside.

Whatever you do, create lists somewhere and use them! Start with reference lists like the ones listed above, and take it from there. Your brain will thank you.


About the Author

Stephen Guise is the author of three books, including the worldwide bestseller, Mini Habits, which is available in 17 languages. You can learn more about him here.


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