Inside The Mind of a Listmaker

I have made thousands of lists in my life.

I don’t think I could live without them. Or at least not live as completely. List-making is a skill, a practice, and an obsession I have cultivated since I was about 12 years old.

I remember my first list from that age (I’m almost sure I still have it somewhere). It was a major feeling of freedom. Gazing at a blank page, pen in hand, and asking myself: what should I do today? That question leads to others. What do I need to do today? What do I want to do?

So I made a list. I put everything in my head when prompted with those questions down on paper.

Why does it matter if we ask these questions in our head, or on a subconscious level, versus bringing them to life with pen and paper?

1.) It makes it real. Literally. It is now taken out of the ethers and into our dimension.

2.) It frees up our working memory and provides a record of what we completed, and what remains undone.

There are many more reasons, but for these two factors alone making a physical list beneficial.

What happened after I made my first list?

The same thing that happens with most lists I make. Some things get done, some don’t. With that particular list I know I had some work to do for a school project. Specifically, going to a print shop to type, edit, and print it. There were also some other less important things I can’t recall. I’m sure there was one or two things that I wasn’t able to accomplish that particular day, but that day changed my life.

From that point forward making all kinds of lists has been a huge aspect of my life. They have been an integral part of any successes that I’ve experienced.

What kinds of lists are we talking about?

Of course, the standard “to do” list. That has evolved into several types of lists I have made over the years or currently make.

There are many kinds of lists to discuss. I am going to keep it simple and focused on basic productivity to-do lists. These are the most common, and a practical expression of list-making in the general population.

How lists have helped me in my work.

In my first career — hospitality, lists have helped me rise through the ranks especially in my younger years. Even when “more experienced” candidates abounded. I always rose to management, because making lists and managing them is the foundation of managing anything. From bus boy to bar manager I made lists. From dishwasher to sous-chef I did the same. Always revisiting the core questions what do I need to do, and to a lesser extent what do I want to do?

As I grew into management, even at an early age, I was not just making my own lists anymore. I was making lists for others. I knew what they needed to do, and what we all needed to to for the operation to run as smoothly as possible. My passion for pen and paper were setting me apart, and providing me with opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Learning to be consistent in this behavior has paid dividends, and it will continue to do so.

Control the list.

My own personal belief is that if you control the lists within a business you control the business. Whoever manages the priorities on the macro and micro levels of day to day operations is responsible for the outcome and direction long term. Management in many forms of business IS list management.

A good leader has a broad sense of what is going on around them. They have a plan, even if that plan doesn’t manifest — they took the time to analyze and assess. The worst performing managers and leaders I’ve seen have not written anything down, and fight a constant battle. They are stuck in reactive mode. Everything that comes at them requires some drastic improvisation and highly inefficient processes. Basically, they are making things up as they go. No game-plan.

Winging it consistency in management or leadership doesn’t work. Improvisation is a skill unto itself but, contrasted against taking a few minutes to focus and discern the importance of tasks, it won’t produce the same results over time. The ability to improvise when necessary is great, but it shouldn’t be the default. Can you say you would rather be reactive than proactive? Not me. A leader that is constantly improvising is lazy on some level — the strategic level.

A simple list is one of the fundamental practices we can use to think and act more strategically.

Think about it. The act of clarifying thoughts and priorities. That is list-making.

In my life, I have noticed that even the act of dumping the thoughts rattling around my head out onto a list is immensely beneficial. Even if I never look at that list again for most of that day. When I do revisit it I’ll find things that have been done, and some that are likely to remain undone. But I feel better.

Sometimes everything does get done, sometimes nothing gets done. When we make lists, cross things off, carry things over to the next list, and revise, we are in constant contact with our priorities. The most important things our minds can muster are right in front of us.

Just doing it helps.

Just scribbling pen and paper and freeing up space in my mind. It feels good. Try it.

Some people get by without lists, but I honestly have no idea how. Maybe they have a greater storage capacity in their working memory? Maybe they don’t care what they do with their energy? I don’t know.

I hear people often confess — “I’m just not a list person.” Maybe that’s the case, or maybe that’s the story they tell themselves to avoid the act of being responsible for their time and accomplishments. I wasn’t born a list person either.

I decided to make a list when I was 12 years old, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

What do you need to do today? Write it down.

This is the 69th installment of Writing Wednesday. A weekly commitment to myself to actually pursue my dreams of becoming a writer. I am a writer.

Let me know what you think, and follow my journey on Instagram/Twitter (@multitude27) you can also check out my blog



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Brendan McCaughey

Brendan McCaughey


Renaissance Man pursuing my full potential. Grew up in kitchens & hospitality, driven to ignite positive change for that industry. I love writing & creativity.