I am a list writer. I do it by hand. Every day. Sometimes three or four times a day, if I’m feeling really overwhelmed.

Lists are a great way to force yourself to prioritize your life. When you read lists of why people fail, it’s clear that writing a list of goals every day will make your more successful at reaching them.

But a lot of days, I think the motivator for me is not being a successful person. I just like the act of writing the list. I do it every morning, before I start work. And it’s calming, like a meditation.

It also helps me to see my day — and when I write big goals, my life. There is a discipline that comes with rewriting every morning. You know those things that you keep on your list forever but never get to? You face reality much sooner if you rewrite by hand. The repetition of rewriting something that will never happen starts to get to you. You leave it off.

I am not alone in the idea of writing by hand to gain focus. Dave Wirtschafter, president of William Morris Agency said in an interview in Fortune magazine: “I believe in writing down anything important by hand. I don’t now whether it’s staring at the piece of paper or the physical exercise of moving the pen. Whatever it is, the information seems to really stay in my head and make me more focused.”

If you don’t do this, I recommend that you give it a try. Get rid of your electronic list for a week and see what happens. Henriette Klauser says that if you write down what you want the commitment you give to the writing of the goal will actually help you commit to making the goal come true. I think there’s some truth to that. And maybe you should check out her book, Write It Down, Make it Happen.

But maybe what you should do is just buy some good paper and good pens. I like to use notebooks of graph paper. I think the boxes make me feel more organized than just horizontal lines. And I use pens that ooze ink. You can’t underestimate the importance of feeling the pen sail on the paper.

Don’t tell me you’re too busy. The mere act of devoting time each day to your list is an acknowledgment of the importance of your prioritizing, goal-setting, and focus in your life.

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22 replies
  1. christin
    christin says:

    Totally agree with this. I keep a to-do list each week (start a new one usually the friday before) so that I can clearly see what needs to be done that week. I sometimes adjust throughout the week, depending on the work load. A couple years ago, my boss bought me a Palm, and I haven’t touched it. The stupid little notebook I keep my lists in is WAY more effective for me. There really IS something about the act of writing it out…it helps me remember.

  2. Alexa
    Alexa says:

    I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment every time I can put a line through an item on my to-do list. I am not a visual learner, but there is something about seeing my list get smaller and smaller that makes me feel like I am on track for the day. I am in banking and the program we use to open new accounts has a task list that i just can’t get behind. I have to write things out myself and cross them off as I go.

  3. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    Haha, I was just going to say “you forgot to add how gratifying crossing things of your list really is.” Alexa beat me to it. I also feel like seeing something I have bolded (by writing over the same thing multiple times) is a lot more influential then seeing something bolded on a palm or computer screen.

  4. Michael Holley Smith
    Michael Holley Smith says:

    You might notice that bioblogs are subtle and often powerfully visual lists of character traits at work. They replace the hackneyed list of action verbs. When I complete a project I buy myself a nice new pen to start of new list for the next project. Ink on paper is the next best thing to wheels on a highway. No doubt writing imprints the conscious mind to store the info at the top, and since we spend most of our time forgetting (the rush of daily images not needing to be remembered), telling ourselves to do things in steps makes perfect sense.

  5. John Whiteside
    John Whiteside says:

    I rely on electronic lists, but my partner is a list-writer, and I’ve picked up the habit (a little) from him. It really does help. It doesn’t replace the electronic lists for me, though, because I tend to put things I need to remember to do six months from now on them – and it organizes that stuff.

    Another good habit I picked up from him is the Notebook. The Notebook is dedicated to notes from meetings and calls, brainstorming ideas, that sort of thing. I carry it around & it’s useful both as a focusing tool and a record of all those meetings, conversations, etc.

  6. Rodger Constandse
    Rodger Constandse says:

    I agree that writing things down is a very good practice, but I don’t think you necessarily need to do this with pen and paper to get the benefits.

    Just getting things out of my head and in writing is more than enough for me. I rewrite my goals every day on the computer, and it’s worked really well for me.

    I love electronic lists because they are so easy to organize, prioritize, and update as things change. If I had to do this by hand, I would either have a very messy list :) or I would end up leaving stuff off the list, which is counterproductive when you are trying to get things out of your head.

    If rewriting things by hand is therapeutic for you, then that alone is reason enough to do it, but it doesn’t mean you have to abandon the benefits of your electronic lists.

    Why not do both?

    I know some writers that like to develop most of their material on paper, but they still type it up on their PC when they are ready to start editing it :)

  7. Hope
    Hope says:

    After working with online lists, PDA lists, and computer lists, I realized just what you’re describing and went back to a written calendar and list. It just works better for me, probably because the act of writing it imprints it somewhere the computer strokes don’t.

    As well, if I am anxious about anything at night and it’s creating insomnia, I get up and make a list of things that are bothering me, and I can sleep knowing I won’t forget them the next day.

    Long live pen and ink!

  8. Josh
    Josh says:

    There’s nothing quite like crossing something off a list. However, making lists isn’t good advice for everyone. There are a lot of people out there who write lists as a form of procrastination.

  9. Greg
    Greg says:

    Wow, that brought back a memory! 20 year ago I the owner of the company I worked for insisted all his managers carry around a little spiral-topped notebook in their shirt pocket. Each to-do was written down, and when completed, marked through with a single line. When more than 3 pages had items, the list was rewritten on clean pages and the older pages were marked through. Phone numbers were written inside the cover.

    We used to hang on to these because they were a permanent archive of what we did and when. Also, keeping the list no longer than 3 pages forced us to prioritize. Oh, and gotta love the technology! No batteries, cables, or butetooth!

    I am going to go back and try it again. Thanks!

  10. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I agree 100%. I love lists. Always have. One negative I will say is people sometimes look at me funny because they think it is too “low tech”. They will say things like, “Hmm, I’m surprised you don’t have a Palm.” But don’t worry, I won’t succumb to “palm pressure”.

  11. Eva
    Eva says:

    Ha! I love pens that “ooze” ink. You’re right on about the feeling about pen on paper.

    Which reminds me, I need to write down my expenses for the week. :)

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  13. Dina
    Dina says:

    Writing lists is helpful but every time I decided to do it even in really important planning situations I didn’t do it, I am used to mediations and feeling things so when I have to review some project whether small or a life changing one I just let myself concentrate and come out with the step that I have to take now.

    The only times that lists actually work for me is in checking that I have done all I decided or had to do.

    Like going with a list after every thing is packed to see if I got it all. Or making a list of where I was heading to see that I really got there.

    I’m in a process of moving to a very different house in the north and I can really see that when I stuck and can’t figure out what to pack with what and in what schedule I let it sink and then know what is the right thing to do now.

  14. Rich
    Rich says:

    Im a list writer too. Im far more organized and on top of things if I write down my daily todo’s each morning. I use a daily planner, which I write in every morning so I know what I need to get to and prioritize. Anything I don’t get to by the end of day I write down on the next day’s todo’s list.

  15. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    Let a personal assistant keep your list. Many people don’t think that they have the means to have a personal assistant but an on-demand service helps to facilitate this like time shares facilitated partial ownership of property. Delegation is critical. For those that don't have a staff, who do you delegate to? One way to overcome this is to use a personal assistant service. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

  16. Scott
    Scott says:

    Can’t make it through the day without my list. Makes it easier for me to get done what I need to during the day, plus as the day progress’s instills a sense of actually getting something done.

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