How to Write a List That Changes Your Life

For several years I did Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which combines dialogue, meditation, and supported yoga postures. My therapist was kind enough to keep a list memorable of things I said during sessions, which she gave to me the last time that we met.

Years later I ran across that list by accident. It included items such as:

  • Feeling good is not a once-in-a-while luxury.
  • Life doesn’t have to be that hard.
  • Peace is always here when you need it. It is one breath away: It is this breath.

These were things that I’d actually said — and forgotten.

Seeing them again was a love letter from a past incarnation of myself — the very teacher I needed at that moment. And the teacher appeared in the form of a simple list.

The power of lists

Since receiving that gift from my therapist, I’ve become a fan of lists.

Lists can be liberating. Umberto Eco, novelist and philosopher, boldly described lists as “the origin of culture.”

I learned this from Maria Popova, creator of The Marginalian and a herself a great lover of lists.

In JourneyNotes: Writing for Recovery and Spiritual Growth, Richard Solly and Roseann Lloyd include a whole chapter about journaling with lists. The authors note that even a humble shopping list is a “symbol of a world greater than itself”:

…a summary of what you need, want, or have, or see at a particular moment in time. It’s an overview, a summary of the crucial facts of the state of one aspect of your life. It’s a kind of blueprint that can be a guide to the future.

Can the simple practice of keeping lists help us to get organized, gain insight, change our behavior, and even deepen our spiritual practice?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

When people tell me that they want to start a journal but have no idea what to write, I suggest making lists. Any of the following can work.

People who matter

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who worked in hospice care, wrote Regrets of the Dying. One thing that many patients told her was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

If ever there was a prompt for a powerful list, this is one. Write down the names of family members and friends that you want to contact regularly. On your death bed, you’ll be glad you did.

Mistakes made, lessons learned

I’ve learned as much from my mistakes as from anything I’ve ever read or heard. My journal includes a running list of mistakes and the life-changing insights they produced. This is a fairly long section.

My goal is to avoid repeating past mistakes — and to make more interesting and instructive mistakes in the future.

Habits to practice

By consciously choosing your habits, you can create new outcomes in your life.

Psychologist BJ Fogg — who specializes in behavior change — suggests that you create a running list of Tiny Habits. These are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

For example: After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

That sounds like an absurdly small behavior. But Fogg consistently finds that small behaviors expand naturally. If you succeed at consistently flossing one tooth, for example, you’re likely to floss more of them.

Other examples of Tiny Habits are:

  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.
  • After I sit down on the train, I will open my sketch notebook.
  • After I hear any phone ring, I will exhale and relax for 2 seconds.
  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.

Learn more by taking the free Tiny Habits course.

Open loops

Write about the points in life where you feel stuck — questions that remain unanswered, problems that remain unsolved, decisions waiting to be made. These are open loops. The mere act of listing them yields some clarity and relief.

Return to this list and see if you can add a next action for closing each of those loops.

Things to read, watch, hear, and learn

Start with the vast collection of free audiobooks, ebook, movies, and courses at Open Culture. They can keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Build your own list as well. When people mention a book, movie, album, or podcast that particularly moved them, write it down.

Text playlist

I got this idea from a wonderful post by Leo Babauta. He defines a text playlist as “a series of articles I come back to and read on a regular basis, for inspiration or as a reminder.”

See Leo’s list here. Also check out examples from Liz Danzico.

The 10-ideas-per-day list

James Altucher is an author, entrepreneur, and angel investor who turns list-making into a daily practice. His goal is to be an “idea machine.”

James lists 10 ideas every day. These can be ideas for anything — books to write, businesses to start, jobs to apply for, problems to solve, habits to start, habits to stop, and much more.

“Ideas are the currency of life,” Altucher writes. “Not money”:

Money gets depleted until you go broke. But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

You might hear people say that ideas are worthless unless they are implemented. Fine. Then create lists of ideas for how to implement your best ideas.

Lists for moving from thinking to action

One of my favorite self-discovery lists comes from a wonderful podcast by meditation teacher Jonathan Foust. He offers a list of questions for moving from personal insight to intentional action:

  • What are you not willing to pay attention to right now?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What are you not willing to feel?
  • Are you willing to be with this?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What could be great about this?
  • What’s not perfect about your life yet?
  • What are you willing to do about this?
  • What are you no longer willing to do about this?
  • How can you resolve this and have a great time doing it?

Lists for recovery

People in recovery from addiction make lists of fears to face, resentments to release and amends to make. They also write gratitude lists.

In Japan, people in treatment for addiction sometimes do Naikan practice. This is based on listing answers to three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto Ishin, creator of Naikan, emphasized the third question. This one helps us overcome our natural self-centeredness and open our heart to other people.

To get started, make a list of the people who were affected when you procrastinated on a task or failed to meet a deadline. Seeing the names in front of you is an inducement to change your behavior in the future.

Lists to warm up for writing

Dealing with writer’s block? In JourneyNotes, Richard and Roseann suggest that you make lists of:

  • What you would write about if you weren’t feeling blocked
  • Your favorite words and phrases
  • Images that you find mysterious
  • What you’re thinking and feeling at the present moment
  • Sensory details—what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting right now
  • Quotes from a conversation that you’re overhearing (or overheard recently) that could become dialogue between characters in a story

Emergency lists

This is another idea from JourneyNotes. Emergency lists are created to keep you sane during bouts of confusion, fear, anger, or sadness.

For instance, people who feel lonely can list ways to recognize their isolation. They can also list friends and relatives who are open to calls and visits.

Richard and Roseann note that an emergency list can become a lifeline:

When we are in a downward spiral, we forget what we know. We panic, go blank, split, numb out. If we have a list — in a familiar place, like the first page of a journal, or taped by the wall by the phone — we are more likely to catch ourselves before we fall.

Lists for periodic reviews

Lists can help you slow down, reflect on what’s working and what’s not, and choose your next steps. Consider doing this on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis.

For daily reviews, Anne-Laure Le Cunff recommends interstitial journaling. Whenever you take a break, open up your journal and list the time. Then add a sentence about the task you just did, how you felt about it, and what will help you with your next task. See this example.

For weekly reviews, consider Anne-Laure’s Plus Minus Next Journal:

  1. Create a table with three columns — “+” for what worked, “–” for what didn’t go so well, and “→” for what you plan to do next.
  2. Fill each column with a list of events from the previous week.
  3. If your “→” list gets too long, then delete any tasks that are not important and not urgent.

I like the monthly review template in the Full Focus Journal. It includes question-based prompts such as:

  • What’s been happening?
  • What are some recent wins?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What are you learning?
  • What decisions have you made?
  • What can you do to advance your goals?

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers a template for a year-end review. I like this because it includes prompts to list your “wins” in the past year and what you’re looking foward to in the coming year.

At any point you can review your habits. Just list your answers to three questions:

  • What habits do you want to stop?
  • What habits do you want to start?
  • What habits do you want to continue?

‘Eternal Truths’

I got this idea from An Eschatological Laundry List: A Partial Register of the 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths by Sheldon Kopp.

Of course, I don’t claim to teach any eternal truths. But I do hold certain high-level insights close to my heart as signposts for daily living. One is my list of Constructive Living slogans.

Another is the list of aphorisms from The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. For example, Tad reminds me that:

  • We are always in the company of our equals.
  • Enlightenment doesn’t care how you get there.
  • All states of consciousness are available right now.

These lines have saved my butt on several occasions.

Don’t underestimate the power of your own “eternal truths.” If your journal was simply a list of reminders with the power to instantly shift your mental and emotional state, you would be repaid for your efforts a thousand times over.