She found she was more forgetful than usual, and her kids told her all the time that she was absent-minded and unfocused.
I told her that stress has been shown to affect memory and organizational ability.
She chuckled a bit, saying she had always had the habit of doing exactly that until recently, and that it was probably a good idea to resume doing so.
It is my hope that she does start this habit again. I believe this simple daily routine of writing lists can be an enormous help in getting and maintaining some control in the chaos and fast pace of modern living.
In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that lists can be sanity savers and major stress reducers in today’s harried, hectic times.
I myself love and live by lists. I use them for just about everything, from grocery shopping and meal planning, to packing for a trip, to ideas for my blogs, to trip planning, to my daily agenda, etc.
In fact, I make a point each and every day of writing down all the things I can think of that require my time or attention.
In my job, I create the list at the end of the day, just before I go home, so I have an idea of what the coming day will look like, and what will require my attention when I arrive.
At home, I'm more likely to write my lists as I sit and drink my coffee first thing in the morning.
Those habits just happen to work for me, but you might find a different routine is better suited for your needs.
Break the List Down into Specific, Achievable Action Steps
In making the list, I break down bigger tasks and projects into much smaller, concrete action steps that I then itemize in a manageable, easy-to-achieve, daily to-do list.
For example, let's say I have to do my taxes. I might break that task down into smaller and simpler ones, such as: gathering my receipts, separating them into envelopes by category and labeling the envelopes, checking for missing forms or receipts, adding up the receipts, etc., etc.
For something like a household cleaning task, I would typically write down every step of the process, including such things as: decluttering a room, dusting it, and cleaning and vacuuming the floors.
When I’m done creating this daily to-do list – and it only takes minutes - I have before me a clear and manageable picture in black and white of all the things I need to tend to.
I can then decide what order I want to do things, based on my schedule and other variables, such as approaching deadlines (for bills, for example), or the urgency of a need (scheduling a car repair, for example)
Use the List to Decide on Daily Priorities
On any given day, I might choose to take care of some very simple routine tasks first, since they are the easiest to get out of the way and cross off.
On another day, I might choose to leave those tasks undone until the next day or later because other ones are more pressing and require more immediate attention.
Or I might choose to handle a mentally demanding task, such as writing, first thing, and something more rote or routine later in the day when I'm tired.
Either way, I know what needs to be done because I have it written down, so I can then determine priorities and eliminate tasks as I perform them. I am not at risk of forgetting something.
That alone makes a list a hugely important tool in time management.
Now, some people like to use their Smartphone and an app for this kind of thing. And that's perfectly fine, of course.
But I find there is great satisfaction in physically taking a pen or pencil in hand and crossing items off a to-do list and having the visual evidence right in front of you of what you’ve achieved.
Hitting the delete button is just not the same at all for me. So I might use the phone as a reminder for things, and then transfer anything I’ve entered there to a physical list.
I like – and strongly recommend – working from a very low-tech, handwritten, hard copy list.
The Retroactive List
Though it may sound a bit absurd, I even recommend adding things to your list retroactively.
By that I mean adding and crossing off - after the fact - those things that you unexpectedly end up doing that were not part of your original plan for the day.
You may laugh or roll your eyes at such a practice, but believe me when I say it can boost the sense of accomplishment enormously when you are able to see at a glance all the things you’ve manged to finish.
That's particularly true if you've had a frustrating day. It can really lift the spirits and give you the energy to move forward when you can see that you did, in fact, get stuff done.
Even if life got in the way of your plans, and it was not what you originally intended or planned.
Keep Lists Handy for Convenience
To help me with my list-making, I keep notepads in a couple of different places.
I always carry a small one in my purse to jot things down as I think of them, and I have others placed around the house where I normally sit to watch TV, do my writing, next to the bed, and on the refrigerator.
For the refrigerator, those with magnetized backs work well, as do magnetized notepad holders.
Having a place in plain sight and within easy reach where you can write down food or household items as you notice them getting low in supply is a great organizational help.
It’s then an easy matter to check this list when making your grocery shopping list.
Typically, I’ll transfer the contents of all the various notepad lists to one bigger steno pad that I then use as my main daily reference.
Any kind of spiral notebook or marble notebook will do just fine, too. Nothing fancy required – just ones you can get at the dollar store or elsewhere for cheap.
You just need one where the pages remain intact and don’t fall out of their own accord. It will get heavy use, as you will refer to it often, so you don’t want it to be terribly fragile.
Some things on the list will go uncompleted at the end of the day - and this can happen quite a lot in busy lives with a lot of demands on our time. Those items will then have to be transferred to the next day's list.
And some to-do items are more complex so they represent ongoing multi-day or even multi-week commitments. That means some aspect of their completion will stay on your to-do lists day after day.
If some of those more involved projects include a deadline, then I recommend using the list in conjunction with a calendar to help keep you on track.
Here's what you do in that case:
Break the project into smaller steps and divide those steps by the number of days available to finish them before the deadline. That shows you exactly how much you need to get done each day to complete it on time.
Then enter each of those daily tasks into your list as described above.
List making is about as low tech and simple as it gets. It costs absolutely nothing in terms of skill level, gadgetry, or apps.
But it’s absolutely the best organizational tool I know of and can end up saving you huge amounts of time and aggravation -- and also money -- while boosting your sense of accomplishment.
Give it a try and see if it doesn’t make your life easier.
I’m betting it will.