Why making lists won’t make you happy.


I had my set approach to life; I was going to plan my way to happiness. I remember  exactly when my obsession with planning began. In high school there were certain ‘cliques’. I attended an ‘girls school only’ and we had two main groups, one with and one without the ‘big’ money. As we were obliged to were uniforms having the means and the willingness to wear a certain type of socks or not would classify you into the one or the other group. Actually there were three groups, with and without the socks, – I am not making this up! – and then there was the larger group in the middle, the more silent one.

As people do, they sometimes tend to bully and I was not bullied but I was aware of the dangers of not wearing the right type of socks. One day a girl harrased me about my greasy hair. It was greasy that day yes, not all the time. I replied the best way I could think of and that was that. Because there was enough social injustice in our school and we already spoke up, I didn’t want to be targeted by the bullies. I wanted to defeat them with more rational points. That is exactly what teenagers do, they love a good argument, I was no exception to that rule.

I decided that I would not come to school again with greasy hair, I would not give them  more ammunition to bully. I made a plan. The easiest way not to forget something is to do it every day so I started to wash my hair every day. I learned that planning – doing things on a regular basis – diminished my anxiety and took some worries away. It made my life simple.

Almost a decade later I was an adult and needed to arrange things for myself. To figure out a work schedule  that varied from day to day, planning groceries, paying bills, clean, tidy and have some fun with  friends I made a list. It started with a grocery list. That wasn’t  a bad thing, it helped me not to have to run back again to the store.

The original purpose was not to forget something important.  But the wonderful list came with other perks like:

  • working efficiently: there is no trial and error, you cross the things of one by one
  • no worries: what is done, is finished and you hop from one item to the other
  • avoid problems:  you’re not going to forget important things like taxes
  • less anxiety:  you’re sure all is done
  • idea of control: I was somewhat a responsible adult
  • free up time: purpose was to check off the items and quickly fill my life with other more enjoyable things




And somehow it turned around; I ended up chasing the lists. I was presented with the other side of making lists:

  • the more I got done in one day, the more things I could add to the list
  • paying too much attention to the items on the list enhanced the entropy state of my mind.


Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos … when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic order of the mind reveals itself … Entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable. (Csikszentmihalyi)


According to Csikszentmihalyi [1] the flow-state is the opposite of the entropy state and it consists of being in the moment and focused on what you are doing. This focus, without boundaries, relaxes the mind in a way and brings you happiness. Only this flow state cannot be achieved in a limited time as losing the sense of time is a component of flow. Imagine a painter working in his studio. Making lists could minimize your chances of getting into your flow.


  • thinking about the list takes away from the task to do. I cannot really explain this one but I feel it (that my main explanation nowadays, but I feel it!). I feel like I do things without planning them perfectly, I can do them more wholeheartedly. And if I don’t do the laundry wholeheartedly I just have to do it, once. When making a list, I write down ‘do laundry’ and then I start to think about it and then I’ll do the laundry. So with laundry on the list, I’ll think twice as much about the task.
  • remember when the bullet journal became popular? That was at the high of ‘my planning’. Planning had three steps now; how to plan the bullet journal on its own, making the list and do the thing actually planned.


Now I live with very small lists, I still write down the groceries and group sometimes a few to-do things and don’t -forget -to -bring -along-lists. But I don’t have a list each day for different areas of my life and that has a positive effect on my self-esteem. I’m learning how to rely on me instead on an object outside me. I’m learning that I know what to do and that the world won’t end even if I forget my grocery list.


Ps. I discovered dry shampoo for greasy hair!







[1] http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/

10 thoughts on “Why making lists won’t make you happy.

  1. I’ve always liked lists, because my mind is calmer when it’s organized. Depression has shot my memory to hell, so I can’t count on my brain to remember much of anything if I don’t make note of it. I also get easily overwhelmed, but if I’ve got a list I can narrow things down and pick one thing to focus on.

    But if lists make your mind less calm, I think you’ve found a very good approach!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting, I wrote an article about that gentleman whose name I still can’t spell off the top of my head, too. Flow is very intriguing; I’m not great at turning it on by command but I’ve found that if I just stop hiding from something and force myself to DO IT, flow begins shortly afterward. I think there are definitely prerequisites to flow such as being well rested and not starving, as well.

    I’m a lister. Nothing elaborate… I have a planner I write down my top 3 daily goals in and then any minor tasks that should be done but wouldn’t end the world if I didn’t do them. Even with the lists, it really is up to how I feel that day whether or not I get anything done. At least with the list though, I can look back and see what I missed so I can do it later.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Flow is something funny, you can get into it by start doing things, even things you think are not too fun. It’s about your mind that focusses on the task and meanwhile is able to relax because of the focus. But you also need to ‘come down’ from the flow, like you said, you need to be well rested and not starving. Those two seem to be a condition to do a lot of things 😊 I like making a top 3 with minor options. I always felt sooo guilty when the endless list wasn’t all checked of. Maybe I can make a top 3 ‘how to feel’; like ‘accomplished’ ’empowered’ ‘relax’ and then find things to evoke those feelings. Thank you for your comment, it helped me!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi!
    I am new to your blog and enjoyed your post.
    I also enjoy making lists. They serve various purposes for me, the main one being they order my thoughts. I wrote a post o, my blog about lists and how they work for me. If you click on my name it will take you to my home page. Just scroll down till you find “Craft me a List.”
    A good day to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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