Task lists, Action lists, Gratitude lists, To-do lists, To don’t lists – this list is endless (pun intended). Regardless of whether you love or loathe Lists, the power of lists in helping you achieve goals in life cannot be overstated.

In jest, I have made some not-so-complimentary references to how lists rule my life, in my previous posts – OverthinkingOne more thing. Here’s the thing, though. I’ve achieved a goal or two in my life that I never thought was possible. I have to credit a good part of these accomplishments to using lists.

There are just a few areas in life I can claim to be an expert at. Making lists is one of them. I’ve spent years experimenting with creating and managing various kinds of lists.  Then, the very wise Dr. Maya Angelou spoke to me.

When you learn, teach.
When you get, give.

Dr. Maya Angelou

So, in the next few posts, starting with this one, I’d like to provide some actionable guidelines on how the power of lists can be used to help you

  1. Focus on what’s important
  2. Eliminate all the mindless clutter that devours your time.

Where do we start?

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-be-see
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi

Julie Andrews singing in the movie ‘Sound of Music’
Songwriters: Oscar Ii Hammerstein / Richard Rodgers

When you plan you begin with L-I-S-T-S. Tacky? I know.

You’re a multihyphenate and you didn’t know it

The word multihyphenate, if you’re not familiar with it, describes someone with multiple professions or skills. Yes, there are people who describe themselves with taglines instead of words. Actor-writer-comic -Youtube star-Uber driver? Celebrities have eagerly adopted the multi-hyphen philosophy to describe themselves, as a means of self- promotion.

But celebrities certainly don’t get to monopolize this word. I’d venture to say that every single reader here is a multihyphenate if you think about it. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is which of those hyphenated nouns that describe you today do you really want to keep? More importantly (the million-dollar question?) though is, which desirable noun is missing from your tagline today?

Tough to answer isn’t it? Or does it change depending on how your day’s going? While these descriptions are not fixed constants of ourselves that we take from cradle to grave, they help define how we choose to identify ourselves to the world.

To go to ‘Aspiring Pianist-Aspiring ultramarathon runner-Aspiring ParentOfTheYear- Aspiring writer’, from ‘9to5MundaneJobWorker-CarpoolQueen-Cook-LaundryFolder’ takes effort. This is where the power of lists come in.

Why Plan?

#Cliché alert If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Stuck without planning - how lists can help
Image credit: New Line Cinema
Movie: Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery

Have you watched the famous Austin Powers movie clip of the main character doing a 3-point turn with his luggage cart?  Look it up, if you can. It is telling. A lot of times, we’re like that in life. We end up doing a whole lot of work but not really going anywhere.

It’s because we get caught up in the minutiae of life and its endless pushes and pulls. We mostly are in reactive rather than proactive mode.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances

William Shakespeare

There are always going to be extraneous circumstances that impact what we do. While we may all simply be actors in the play and not its director, our roles and performance in the play would be greatly enhanced if we were to write at least a part of the script.

One way of contributing to the script of life is by creating a plan. And that means making lists. So, you better start believing in the power of lists.

Enough with the analogies, you say? Just a couple more, pretty please?

If it’s important for Coca-Cola, it is important for you

All businesses, profit and non-profit alike, devote time, resources and money towards strategic planning initiatives. For large corporations, these planning sessions are typically conducted in offsite retreats, often at great expense, to allow senior management to focus on distraction-free planning.

The Standards of Excellence Institute, a national institute established to promote effectiveness among non-profit and government entities, has this goal for their strategic planning session. ‘Advancing the mission and vision of the organization, building a closer relationship between board and staff, updating the strategic plan to reflect current and emerging reality, and finding new solutions to persistent issues’.

Is there a point I’m trying to make here, you ask? Yes. Desperately.

If a business – a wholly contrived, fictional entity – can take the planning process so seriously, what is stopping you – a flesh and blood person (I can only assume) from doing the same?

I’d argue it is EVEN more important for YOU to do the following than it is for any business entity.

  • Advance YOUR mission and vision
  • Build a closer relationship between yourself and others you care about
  • Change jobs or acquire new skills to reflect current and emerging reality
  • Find new solutions to persistent issues

Convinced that you need to plan? I sure hope so.

The power of lists

How to Plan?

So, how do we start our personal strategic planning process? You guessed it. By starting with a list. Not just any list. The Master of them all. The Cold Iron of all lists – the Master list.

#Off-topic alert! For the ‘Cold Iron’ reference, please indulge my Kipling-fascination.

Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”

Poem: Cold Iron
Poet: Rudyard Kipling

List A: The Master List

To appreciate the Power of lists, you need to start with the Master List…


a) A ruled notebook with blank pages and a pen. Yes, old-fashioned is the way to go on this one. We’ll have plenty of time for tech later.

b) A couple of hours of distraction-free time. If companies can allocate a week and spend thousands of dollars flying their teams across the world to conduct strategic retreats, you surely can spend a couple of hours away from the humdrum of daily life.

The Process

The process to create a master list is probably the simplest of all list tasks we’ll be talking about in this series. You are simply required to do a brain dump of everything you are/should be/need to be doing.

#AnotherAnalogyAlert – Food, this time!

Assembling your favorite Pizza

Think of this list-making exercise as if you were assembling your favorite Pizza. You need a Pizza base, Pizza sauce, favorite toppings, and preferred cheese or cheese blends.

The Base – the mundane day to day stuff

No pizza base, no Pizza. Here you’ll write down all tasks you currently do on a regular basis. Start with everything you need to do tomorrow or in the next few days. Try to only list tasks that take 15 minutes or longer.

Here are some examples: Your day job, Fill gas, Cook dinner, Launder sheets, Clean house, Dental appointment, Soccer practice pick-up, Pay bill, Cancel credit card, Read library book, Return library book, etc. etc.  

The Sauce – stuff you really should do because it adds value to your life and others

Better sauce = tastier pizza. Include tasks that you already do on a regular basis or the ones you should be doing fairly regularly.

Activities such as social calls to friends/family, decluttering your surroundings, yard and car maintenance, volunteering etc fall into this category.  

The Toppings – tasks that would change your pizza from blah to wow

This is where all your aspirational tasks come in. Write down all things you’d like to accomplish. Include tasks of all orders of magnitude.

Such as producing a music album, writing a book, speaking at a conference, being on the school board, building a company, running an ultramarathon, climbing Everest. Anything that you frequently wish you had the time, aptitude, skill, money or luck for.

The Cheese – melty stuff

This is stuff you like to do, really 24/7, but can’t because, well, Life.

Netflix binges, sitting on a beach in Maui under an umbrella sipping constantly refilled (by someone else) beverages while reading far-fetched fantasy fiction. Whatever floats your boat.

Are we done yet?

Not quite. The pizza is complete. You have no room for anything else. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is a 5th category you have to write up too.

I forgot to tell you about the pills you need to take with the pizza – for your lactose intolerance and other medical reasons. Tough, I know!

The pills – the not so fun stuff

This is where all the unpleasant tasks and your 3 am anxieties go. The tasks you don’t do, don’t want to do, or don’t even want to think about.

Making a doctor’s appointment to get the mole checked, calling up a grumpy friend or family member, checking your credit score, taxes, tough conversations with your teen, etc. This can be a long list in itself depending on how good you are at procrastinating. But, go ahead and spell them out here.

As you write down tasks, keep the following pointers in mind:

  • No editing needed. No analysis needed. Your goal is to simply start writing out a numbered list.
  • Be honest – you are the only one that is going to see this list
  • Be brutal – don’t sugarcoat
  • Don’t dawdle – if you think of something, write it down asap. Don’t overthink it. We’ll have plenty of time later to revise/edit/reframe
  • Don’t worry about forgetting tasks – you can keep adding to this list as you remember things over time.

Are we done, yet? Yes! For now. Go ahead and do the Happy Dance!

From Pizza to the Golf course

Imagine walking through a long golf course with a heavy set of clubs on a sweltering day and then finding that you’ve been assigned a cart with a driver to transport your clubs through the course. Bliss!

Yes, it would be lovely if the driver in the cart can play on your behalf and win you the championship. You won’t be at the golf course, then, would you?  

You have just written a list that runs into many pages and you can start to feel overwhelmed. But, hold your horses for a minute!

The Power of Lists

Here’s what you have actually managed to do in this process. You have succeeded in enormously lightening the load you’ve been carrying for years. By writing it all down, you’ve transferred all your worries, anxieties, dreams, aspirations from your head on to paper. You have shifted the weight of your clubs to the safety of the cart.

You are free to focus, play, and enjoy your game without the added burden of carrying all your clubs.

That is the power of lists, in short. We’ll figure out what to do with the master list in the next post. Until then, enjoy the lightness. Don’t worry, be happy!

Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe

Mark Twain




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  • Love your blog, Aruna. You write so well.
    I love my lists too. I have all my old list-notebooks stacked up neatly in my garage – Goes back all the way to to 1999. I sometimes go through the old ones. I enjoy looking back sometimes (through my notebooks).

    • Thank you so much first for reading! Really appreciate your taking time to do that. And it’s so cool you actually have you lists from way back. That’s neat. Isn’t it amazing to look back and see all the things that consumed us in our younger days? You now have al the ingredients to write your autobiography!

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