We all have our lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, bucket lists — the list of types of lists goes on and on. I too love lists, but not for the same reason most people do. I don’t experience any satisfaction from crossing off tasks, and I don’t maintain a running list of my day-to-day responsibilities either. Instead, I save my lists for two specific purposes.
The first purpose is to learn, as lists are incredible learning tools. I first discovered this application of lists the night before my first-year calculus midterm. After going through the practice test for the second time, I realized I had repeated almost all the same mistakes as my first attempt. Out of frustration, I ripped a sheet of paper from my notebook and wrote down every error I had made.
After that moment, I didn’t think much of that list at all — it was just a spontaneous expression of frustration. However, on the exam when I saw similar types of problems that I had made mistakes on during my preparation, I instantly recalled the list and was able to avoid making the same errors for the third time. That’s when I realized the power of embracing my mistakes rather than simply disregarding them.
Following that eureka moment, I decided to continue keeping a list of mistakes and misunderstandings while studying for an exam. The important part of these lists is that I spare no detail — whether it’s a simple algebraic error in computing an integral or semantic nuance in explaining an abstract statistical concept.
These types of lists can also be used in settings outside of school. For example, I used one this past summer while learning the ropes of my new job, as there were a seemingly infinite number of details to keep track of in a stressful environment, which leads me to the second application of lists in my life.
I also construct lists for the purpose of controlling my stress during my most anxiety-inducing weeks of the school year. These types of lists are your straightforward to-do lists, but it is the process of making them that's critical. I make these lists during midterms, finals or whenever I feel overwhelmed — they give me the ability to get a handle on my stress and stay on top of my responsibilities.
The ritual begins as soon as I feel like there’s just too much to do. I start by pulling out my pink pad of sticky notes and write down everything I have to do that will take up a significant amount of time — whether it’s running to the grocery store, taking a midterm practice test or remembering to make my routine phone call to my mom every Friday.
While in the process of making it, I follow three important guidelines. First, there’s no restrictions in terms of length, as it’s intended to be comprehensive. Additionally, the order of the tasks isn’t significant either, as I know from experience that I wouldn’t adhere to it. What does matter though is, once again, the leveI of detail I use. For example, I’ll write “outline notes from the first six econometrics lectures” as opposed to “study for econometrics.” This specificity keeps me focused, as I’m able to quickly switch from one task to another without having to think about what I’m doing next. It allows my list to serve as a guide for studying, as I can plan out all that I need to do in order to prepare for a given test or paper.
Once finished with my list, I take a moment to pause and remind myself that, despite its absurd length, this list contains tasks that I am fully capable of completing — and that’s the key for me. I might not have all the time in the world, but I’m able to see a path forward through the next 36 hours — or however long until my next deadline. Taking on the upcoming challenges in my life then becomes a manageable endeavor instead of a seemingly impossible one.
This process of taking your obligations, making them tangible and therefore seemingly less daunting is why everyone should try making one of these lists. We obviously cannot control everything in our lives, but lists help me to make the most of the factors that I can control — whether it's how much I learn or how much I stress. So next time you're feeling overwhelmed, whether you’re taking on the challenge of a new job or approaching finals at the end of the semester, try taking advantage of the astonishing power of making these lists.