Lists are a framework for converting ideas that exist in your mind to realities in your daily life.
This post isn’t about to-do lists so much as it is about how really good lists can impact your life – and what kinds of lists are the most impactful. Beyond giving you direction or recording information, lists are a space in which you can brainstorm, explore, remember, and celebrate.
Some lists are made one or twice in our lives. You may make a bucket list, cross items off, add new lines, or lose the bucket list and start over.
Other lists are made frequently, like grocery and other shopping activities, but don’t carry the weight of “life enhancement.” That’s what I want to talk about.
What makes a list life-enhancing?
When that list becomes a practice.
When we make a to-do list, it serves a purpose. But expanding on that idea — by treating lists as a have-to, and a milestone in your daily life that gives you direction and a creative outlet — your list can give you a purpose.
You can add enormous value to your life with little more than a pen and a pad of paper. This activity, when done with frequency and intent, can be as therapeutic as meditation or yoga.
To cement your practice as a part of your schedule, set aside time each day, each week, or periodically as it works for you, for your list practice. Create an event in your calendar, set an alarm, and make a commitment to your practice.
Each of the lists outlined below goes deeper than a to-do list or shopping list; they exist to shake up your thought pattern.
By practicing one or all of these lists regularly, you could increase your overall satisfaction with your days, ease the burden of decision-making with clarity of your internal compass, and develop any part of your life to the standard you’ve always dreamed of.
Lists bring clarity. Try one of these life-enhancing lists.
1. Gratitude List
A post about lists would be incomplete without a gratitude list, so we’re getting it out of the way first. If you’ve ever kept a gratitude list, you may join us in reminiscing that warm and fuzzy feeling you experienced when you wrote down the wonderful, positive, and impactful things that happened that day.
If you haven’t tried a gratitude list yet, let me be the first to tell you that it’s worth it.
Each day, you open your journal, planner, or digital word processor, and create a list of any number of things for which you’re grateful. These can include:
- I’m grateful for the health of my pets.
- I’m grateful for a job that I enjoy that pays me well.
- I’m grateful for the man who gave me his seat on the bus.
- I’m grateful for tater tots (my lunch was especially delicious).
A gratitude list isn’t a short-term project. It’s a lifelong exercise. Too easily do we get caught up in the comparison game, forgetting why we love and appreciate what we are fortunate to have. Try mixing up your gratitude list practice regularly, pulling inspiration from your daily experiences (micro) and your life overall (macro).
You can choose a specific number of items to add to your list daily; choose a weekly theme or focus to deepen your relationship with an area of your life; add as many items as you can in a timed period… the options are endless.
With a gratitude list, get to one hundred entries before you look back and review. Then, get to five hundred. If you add ten items every day, you’ll reach one thousand in about three months.
Ideal practice: Once daily.
2. Values List
Akin to a bucket list, a values list is straightforward and rarely changes, though it evolves as we grow. Keeping a values list is an interesting experience of getting to know yourself (and helping you mold your future self), and can take a bit of personalizing to work for your life.
To start a values list, start by understanding what value means to you.
value | verb. to consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of.
Think about the people in your life, the work you do (or don’t) complete, the art you enjoy, the little details that spark your smile. Take this opportunity to journal and ask yourself a few questions:
- What could I not live without?
- Who could I not live without?
- What beliefs do I hold about the world, my community, my relationships?
- What do I stand for?
- What will I not stand for?
- What is most important to me?
A values list is personal and can feel vulnerable to create. I created my values list because when big decisions came my way, like where to go to college or whether or not to take a job offer, I found myself journaling over and over about my priorities. I’d repeat the same phrases, “Enough schedule flexibility to travel,” “Want to be recognized for merit not hours,” “Be surrounded by nourishing people.”
What I was really saying was that I value autonomy, contribution-focused worth, and only hanging out with good people.
My values list expanded to include a variety of topics:
- Personality traits
- Lifestyle and activities
- Health and wellness
By getting to know my values, I greatly reduced my tendency to haphazardly course-correct when something started to feel ‘off.’
We’ve all been a situation that simply wasn’t in-line with our inner compass. Maybe we hear someone say something derogatory or we start reading into media that causes psychological un-wellness, and in that moment we realize that where we are is not in line with our values.
If you’re already crystal clear on what matters most to you, you will make smarter decisions about how to course correct. You’ll make fewer mistakes in judgment, saving you time and energy.
Keep your values list up-to-date and don’t be afraid to change something you wrote in an earlier state. If your list is handy, you can update it conveniently when you learn something new about yourself and your expectations.
Ideal practice: Once monthly.
3. Ongoing Projects List
If you’re a project manager, you may have a list of this kind for your clients and open invoices. But, do you have a comprehensive ongoing projects list that includes your child’s home economics project, the unplanted garden bed in the backyard, and your personal goal to finish a 10K?
In every area of your life, you’re likely working on a project of some sort. Or, you want to be. Projects take many forms, and as we become busier and have higher expectations of all we can do, keeping all projects in one place gives a clear overview of where you’re delegating your time and focus.
For me, this realistic view answered my questions, “Why do I feel like I can never finish anything?” and “Why do I feel so scattered?”
I was drastically over-committed to projects.
I say yes in the moment to activities I may or may not have the bandwidth to fulfill. It feels good in the moment to say yes — but it’s better to know for sure, to avoid stretching yourself too thin or letting someone else down if you really don’t have space.
Try keeping an up-to-date project list, and give it a little boost.
You may want to have more or less information about your life projects. When keeping a projects list, it’s up to you to determine what details – seen at a glance as you’re reviewing – will impact your productivity and presence of your commitments.
Ideal Practice: Daily to weekly.
4. Brain Dump
The Brain Dump is arguably the most therapeutic list you can make.
Imagine that you are coming back from a long trip abroad. Your bags are laden with worn laundry and personal effects and all the treasures you picked up in your travels. When you arrive home, what’s the first thing you do? You put that heavy suitcase down! And, you get ready to unpack it.
For our brain, every day is a long trip abroad. You pick up ideas, inspiration, experiences (good and not so), stories, expectations, to-dos, worries, and wins to celebrate. The Brain Dump is the act of unpacking.
Here are a few examples of what typically pops up on my brain dump lists:
- Work and project-related to-dos, unfinished activities, next steps, and ideas I’d like to explore in the future.
- Financial concerns, related appointments, and resources I’ve seen but haven’t had time to try.
- Phrases like, “Do I want to be a travel writer?” and “Does my dog get enough exercise?” Questions are common for me because throughout the day, I may notice a possibility or problem but not have the time or headspace to investigate further.
- “Call mom today,” and “Make an appointment to have my laptop serviced,” because I will often push those to-dos around for days before I commit to implementation.
This activity is fairly straightforward but these guidelines may help you create a routine that works for you.
- Set a timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes, depending on how long its been since you completed a brain dump or what kind of day you’ve had.
- Write or type every single bit of information in your head.
- When the timer goes off, stop recording. Even if you are in the middle of a word. The act of stopping arrests your cognitive flow and helps you find completion.
- If you must finish your thought, do so and then step away for minute to let your list breathe.
A brain dump can sometimes take a turn for the uncomfortable. This activity is my go-to when I need to get personal with my thoughts, feelings, and desires.
Occasionally, I’ll uncover ugly perspectives, unrealistic expectations, even self-deprecating beliefs. Better to bring them to the surface now rather than let them burrow a big worry hole in your daily function.
To take your Brain Dump one step further (and you know I do) separate your findings into categories, activities, or on a timeline. This translates worries, ideas, and expectations into scheduled actions.
Ideal practice: Daily to weekly.
5. Idea List
If you’re familiar with the story of Ink+Volt founder Kate Matsudaira, you know that she is an idea machine. On her journey to entrepreneurship, she spent time with individuals who could come up with one hundred ideas in one sitting… and is now one of those people herself! Do you consider yourself an idea person?
Idea lists are not just for entrepreneurs – they are the court on which you exercise your creativity muscles, play the inspiration game, and push the limits of what you are capable of intellectually.
While these lists can take many forms, there are three fundamental elements to shape your Idea List practice:
- No ideas are bad, stupid, or useless. See: Unicorn Frappuccino.
- All ideas must be heard, written down, or acknowledged, as they may lead to another (even more ingenuitive or fitting) idea!
- Just because an idea has already been done, even done one thousand times over, doesn’t disqualify it for reevaluation. See: Original light bulb vs. Modern LED.
Start modestly: 10 ideas.
- Try a theme: For example, ideas that involve coffee.
- Formulate a prompt: Prompts work best when written to inspire options, like: What are all the ways that I might fill a sandwich? or How might I improve my shower product organization system?
- Start with a problem: My tea is always cold by the time I reach work after a long commute. How could I keep it hot for longer?
Set a timer, giving yourself no more than one minute per expected idea. Ideally, this exercise shouldn’t take longer than 10 – 15 minutes because we do not want to “solve” anything or prototype any solutions. We simply want to squeeze our brains creatively to see just how much juice we can make.
Ideal practice: Weekly to monthly, depending on whether or not this becomes a new favorite hobby.
Grab your planner and a pencil or your favorite list-keeper (I love Evernote) and get practicing!
Taking a look at lists as a practice is an opportunity to expand your cognitive horizons and to help you reimagine the lists you currently keep.
Consider your to-do list; what are all the ways you could make it more impactful? Are the steps within a project plan leading you to completion; is there a reason certain elements of the project hold you back? Is the project in-line with your values?
Put pen to paper, and practice making yourself smarter and happier with a little bit of list-writing.