The Power of Lists



“Rename your To-Do list to your Opportunities list. Each day is a treasure chest filled with limitless opportunities; take joy in checking many off your list.” ? Steve Maraboli

List are one of the best ways you can drive clarity and action.

You can use a list for yourself, to help you prioritize items, focus your attention, identify your goals, remember things, etc.

You can use a list with others, such as on a project, to share the work items.

As a project leader, I make lists all the time.  I use lists for myself.  For example, I make a weekly to-do list, and a daily to-do list.  I also use lists for the team.  I make a list of project goals.  I make a list of work items.

Having a list helps everybody see what’s important.  It helps focus.  It helps drive results.  Lists are also a great way to build a sense of progress.  It’s fun to cross-things off, and say, “Done.”

With that in mind, let’s explore the power of lists …

3 Key Benefits of Lists

There are many benefits to making lists, but I’ll elaborate on three:

  1. Clear Your Mind.   When you dump things to a list, you make it easier to clear your mind.  Instead of trying to remember things, you can simply look at your list.
  2. Get the Bird’s-Eye View.   A list can help you step back and see the full picture.   When you write down all the things on your mind, it’s easier to see what’s going on in there.  When you write down all the things you need to do for your project, it’s easier to see the scope of the work.
  3. Think On Paper.   The real power of lists is that they help you think on paper.  When you write things down, you give yourself another chance to be more objective.  When you let things swirl around in your head, it’s easy for them to get distorted like a funhouse mirror.   When you write things down, you can also add precision.  You can refine your thoughts and simplify.

Why Use Lists

Here are a few reasons to use lists to help you hit your high notes:

  • Analyze things.    You can use lists to analyze options and choices for decisions.  You can use lists to help you identify priorities.
  • Focus.  You can use a list to focus.  Whenever I lose focus, I write down the three wins I wan to achieve, or I make a list of three take aways.  In a team scenario, a list can help everybody keep their eyes on the prize, and the top priorities.
  • Forget things.   You can use a list to deliberately “forget” things.   If you have a hard time of letting go of things in your head, you might find it’s easier to let things go if you first write them down.
  • Index things.  Lists make it easy to manage large set of information.  You can use lists to collect things.   They are a great way to hunt and gather things.  I’m a fan of creating lists of resources, like Web sites, blogs, books, people, quotes, etc.
  • Remember things.   Lists are great for reminders.   You can make a list of things you need to remember to do.
  • Prioritize things.  You can use lists to rank things.  You can sort, rank, and rate the items on your list.   This can help you focus your energy and attention on the top things that count.

How To Use Lists More Effectively

Here are a few ways how to use lists more effectively:

  1. Make multiple lists. Rather than “one list to rule them all,” create focused lists.  This will help you make your lists more actionable.  It will help you make your lists more specific.  It will help you maintain your lists a lot easier.  It will make it easier to throw away lists that you no longer need.
  2. Dump it, then refine it. Remember the rule, “make it work, then make it right.”   Whenever you make a list, just write things down fast.  Once it’s down on paper, you can easily move things around.  You can easily refine things.  Don’t make a bottleneck in your head or fall into analysis paralysis.  Dump first, ask questions later.  Make your first pass always about getting It down.  Make your follow up passes about improving your list.
  3. Sort them.   You can always sort a list.  If it’s about priority, then a numbered list helps.  In fact, at work, when somebody presents a long list of items that don’t seem to have any priority, we call it a “laundry list.”  Another way to sort your list is A-Z.  I find that this really helps, especially when you have a long list of work items.  Imagine if the index of a book was not in alphabetical.  When your list is alphabetical, it’s easy to scan and find things.  It also makes it easy to check for items across lists.   I usually have a long list of work items sorted A-Z, and then a short list of priorities in rank order for action.
  4. Split them.   You can split your list to simplify it.   For example,  I might bubble up the top-of-mind items in my list, to separate them from everything else.   This gives me both a simple and complete view.  I do this with my quotes lists.  I bubble up the top ten quotes and then I list more quotes.  This way you can read the top ten fast, and if you want more, you can then dive in.
  5. Throw them away.   Don’t hang on to a list that becomes a beast of burden.  At some point, you are better off scrapping your list and starting fresh.  I actually create a new to-do list each day.  I might carry things forward, but I always start fresh.  This helps me let things slough off.  This keeps my information fresh, relevant, and timely.  The most important thing is that it helps me avoid feeling like a beast of burden where one more straw will break the camels back.  Creating lists is a fast practice and you get faster with practice.  When a list no longer serves you, let it go.   It’s a tool, not a chore.

My Three Favorite Lists

I use various types of lists in work and life.  My top three favorite types of lists are:

  1. Checklist.   A checklist is simply just a list of “checks” to perform.  I use checklists to share and scale expert information.  For example, at work, I’ve used security checklists to help people protect their information assets.  I also use checklists to capture and share project best practices in a simple way. (See The Power of Checklists.)
  2. Irritation List.   Jack Canfield recommends dumping all the things that bug you down in to a simple list.  I’ve used this approach for years now and it works like a champ.  It’s powerful because putting your irritation down into a list can help you quickly gain perspective, especially when you are looking across the things that bug you.  The list is also powerful because you can decide to act on things or decide to let them go.  (See The Power of an Irritation List.)
  3. To-Do List.   A to-do list is simply a list of things to do.  I make mine more meaningful by bubbling up my top three wins or outcomes to the top.  The list helps me focus and prioritize.  It also helps me check my progress, and it helps remind me of where my time goes or what I’ve achieved.  When days or weeks fly by, and I ask, “Where did the time go?” … I have an answer.

The to-do list is especially important for me at work.  Because I lead projects, I need a simple way to keep track of the state of things over time.  Having the work items in a list make it easier to stay on top of the overall project.

Types of Lists

Here are some examples of some types of lists you are probably familiar with:

  • Bucket List
  • Checklist (As Richie Norton says,”Check your life. Not boxes.”)
  • Chores List
  • Goals List
  • Gratitude List
  • Issues List
  • Irritation List
  • Priorities List
  • Playlist
  • Pros and Cons List
  • Reminders List
  • Resources List
  • Stop Doing List
  • Ta-Da List
  • To-Do List
  • Top Ten List
  • Wish List (when’s the last time you made one of these?)
  • Work Items List
  • Worry List

Now I can cross this post off my to-do list Winking smile

You Might Also Like

The Power of Checklists

The Power of an Irritation List

Time Management Checklist


  1. My to-do Lists are my best friend, J.D. I love this post. I remember the first time I visited this blog was via a list post 🙂 And loving reading your posts ever since.

  2. @ Vidya — I’m such a fan of lists that I’m actually surprised that I haven’t made more list posts.

    I think lists are a fast and useful way to share insight and action. They are especially helpful where everybody has too much to do, and too little time.

    That said, I like to balance list posts with depth posts and short and snappy posts. I think mixing it up keeps things interesting and helps cater to different information needs so there is a little something for everybody.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. JD,

    I’m terrible with lists so I’m always curious when you write on this topic. This is like the ultimate guide to lists. You may win me over yet!

  4. Hi J.D., I can definitely appreciate the power of lists. For me, it’s important to remember the grander purpose that I’m using them for, to convince the younger part of me that it’s okay to be making lists because I’m going to do something cool with the action items on them. 🙂

  5. @ Sandra — The vision I have in my mind is a collection of powerful lists that contain extreme insight for mind, body, emotions, career, finance, relationships, and fun … the world’s wisdom at our finger tips.

    I would love to consolidate the wisdom of the ages and modern sages into compact prose that’s easily distilled, managed, and shared in the form of one-liner reminders or surprising insights or actionable checklists.

    I think your inner-list maker already has everything you need to compose powerful lists.

    The true power of a list is what they rekindle, remind you, or inspire you to do … and how they share and scale insight with others in a rapid way.

    Lists get better with practices.

    @ Chris — I really like that you called out the grander purpose. That’s what inspires me. For me, the grander purpose is “life wisdom at your finger tips.”

    That said, they help me every day with driving action, and they help me lead teams more effectively.

  6. Hi JD,

    Ok, I’ll come clean. I am terrible when it comes to list. I do believe that men are into list more than women. My hubby always makes a list and than laughs at me when I forget things that the store. Hey, gives me a reason to go back. LOL

    there is one think that I used to do when it comes to writing things down. When I was in the worrying stage i use to write my worries down and put them in a box. Check them at the end of the to find that most of them had taken care of themsleves. I don’t worry anymore, figure what is, is and most of it I can not control anyway.

    You do provide very good reasons to make a list. When it comes to idea for my blog i do write them down as the come.

    thanks and blessing to you always, JD

  7. Hi JD

    Excellent post – I especially appreciate item 5: Throw them away. Especially lists on phone/PC tended to hang around for ages in my case, causing much more frustration than value. Partly therefore, I have decided to, whenever practial, write the list on paper rather than electronically.

    I have also made a rule for myself to ALWAYS write down a list of things that I want to achieve before opening my laptop at home. It helps a lot with not getting lost reading social updates, etc.

    Love you blog – keep the great posts coming 🙂


  8. @ Debbie – It sounds like you found a great way for making worries go away.

    I think what I value the most about lists, is there ability to share information in compact form.

    I actually wish I had lists of insight from all my books. Turning books into insightful lists is a lot of work, but it takes the knowledge to the next level.

    @ Thomas — Thank you.

    I’m a fan of paper too. I like digital for dealing with massive mounds, but in general, nothing beats a quick and dirty paper list.

    It is a great pratice to write down the list first while you are clear and intentional, before getting sidetracked.

  9. Hi JD .. lists are certainly essential at times of life. Now I’m not working I use them less .. once I’m free and back up and running again I know I’ll be back to using them .. and will definitely use various forms and mind maps for my projects.

    I’m lucky I have a good memory .. cheers for now – Hilary

  10. @ Hilary — Yes, a good memory helps.

    What I found with lists is that they free up more pre-frontal cortex. It’s a subtle thing, but one thing I noticed is the more I list, the more ideas I create. Moving the lists from my mind to paper makes more room for innovation to flow more freely.

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