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10 Important Reasons Why You Should Set Goals and Make Lists - And 5 Why You Shouldn’t

Updated on August 1, 2012


I remember when listmania hit our house when I was a child. It was when the self-help book boom really took off, and my mother thought that she could be bigger, better, faster, brighter … all if she could just set the right goal for herself, or write the perfect list.

My mother wasn’t alone. ‘Oh, I’m a list-maker,’ people say in the office, although their tone of voice doesn’t quite make it clear if they are proud of this superpower, or if they are very slightly afraid of it.

‘You have to set goals for yourself,’ the self-help gurus told us all, until ‘the goal’ – any goal – became a mantra for success. In business, it’s become ‘a vision’, and if you don’t have one (or even better a list of several) prepared when you go for a job interview, you’d better be ready to explain why you’ve missed out such an integral and vital part of life.

But really, are goals and lists a help or a hindrance? Have you ever got to the end of your daily ‘To Do’ list? Has ‘The Plan’ with the life-enhancing goal ever worked for you? Well … lists and goals have their uses and their downsides, and like everything else in life, what you get out of them depends on whether you use them wisely.


Why You Should Make Lists and Set Goals

Sometimes lists are essential. Sometimes they give us motivation to carry on when our enthusiasm wanes, and sometimes they can curb our impulse to blow the rent money on shiny toys. These are the Top Ten reasons, in list form, of course:

  1. To get things clear in your mind. A brainstorming session can help to get the creative juices flowing and keep us focused, but a storm is a short, swift attack. If your brainstorming sessions are taking up more time than the project itself, it might be time to stop listing all the specialist equipment you need, and just use some scissors to deadhead the roses.

  2. To know where you’re going. If you’re about to embark on a task that will take up a lot of your time, but you haven’t got the foggiest notion of where your hard work is going to lead you, making lists and choosing a goal can help to clarify things (or conversely it can help you see that some things just aren’t feasible).

  3. Motivation. Whether you’re halfway through university and can’t stand the thought of another lecture; or you’re up to Hub number fifteen in the thirty day challenge and can’t write another word, indulging in a little list-dreaming of all the rewards that could come of your efforts is a great way to boost your morale.

  4. To make a decision. If you have to write a list to decide between pizza and pot-roast for tea, flip a coin instead because you’ve gone too far. But for major decisions, like buying a new car or moving house, making a few different lists can stop you making some terrible (and expensive) mistakes.

  5. To plan complicated projects or tasks. The ‘tick-list’ list to make sure you don’t forget a vital stage in a project can make the difference between success and failure. Without a business plan, companies can go bankrupt, and equally you don’t want to get half-way through building a new garage and then realise you forgot to get planning permission.

  6. To remember. If you’re going on a shopping trip, you don’t want to come home weary only to find you’ve forgotten the dog-food, but even more important is the list that reminds you why you gave up smoking, or why you limit yourself to four chocolate biscuits a day.

  7. To curb impulses. Shopping again. If you tend to get excited when you find yourself surrounded by shiny, beautiful, wondrous things, and max out your credit card, a shopping list is a must. It’s easier to resist temptation when you’re at home sipping a cup of coffee than it is in the sweetie aisle of the supermarket, so make a list before you go.

  8. Because It’s Essential! Sometimes lists are unavoidable and necessary. If you’re writing an essay for college, or a report for your boss, you’ll have to make a list your sources as you go along, or you’ll end up spending an extra few hours tracking them down again when you’ve finished.

  9. To compare. Shopping again! For big purchases listing different shops and comparing deals and prices is a good idea, because you’re less likely to get carried away by sales patter if you go home and make the decision at home once you’ve collected all the information you need.

  10. To improve your health, your life, your finances… If your life is overcrowded, noisy, scattered and busy, taking time out to make a few lists and plans on how you can improve various aspects of it – from cutting down on your spending, to swapping fruit for all those sweet treats – can give you the little oasis of calm you need to think about how you can improve your life.

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Make Lists

Sometimes, lists become an end in themselves, and stop us getting on with the business of actually doing things. The top five reasons for cutting back on your list-making are:

  1. If the list becomes your ‘reward’ – if you feel like you’ve done something just because you made a list, or you’re forever making lists of things you never get around to doing, then stop making them!! If you really can’t bear to work without a list, go through the cupboardful of the ones you already have rather than add another one to the list mountain
  2. If your lists have more than a dozen items on them, and you have a boxful to get through. Ask yourself are you splitting small tasks into ever smaller and smaller ones? Can your list of 20 things to do for your tax return be reduced to a single post-it or a reminder note on your calendar? Tick–lists are great for complicated tasks to make sure you remember to do everything, but if you have a tick-list just for taking the dog for a walk, you might want to consider taking a risk and just slipping the dog leash on Mr Snuggles and putting one foot in front of the other until you’ve walked round the block.
  3. If your list-making is compulsive, you might have OCD, and if it’s bothering you or affecting your life, please, please see your doctor. OCD can be a very uncomfortable and scary syndrome, but you can be helped with CBT or other therapy. If your list-making is less compulsive than this, you might be using it as a security or defence mechanism to feel like you have control and order in your life, but if your lists and goals are getting out of hand, this can become self-defeating. Try allowing yourself just ten minutes in the morning to write a list of the things you really must do, or really must remember, JUST FOR THAT DAY. And then do them.
  4. If you find yourself making ever-more complicated or extravagant lists whenever you feel bored. If every time you get a spare hour you start to dream up all the things you’d buy when you finally publish that book (which is currently just a list of characters and thirty or so lists of possible first-page plot developments), then spend FIVE SECONDS thinking about how many words of your actual book you could have got written if you’d just spent your spare hours writing instead. Right, your five seconds is up, get writing.
  5. If you find you can’t remember anything unless you have a list. This is a tricky one, because lists can curb our impulses, or remind us of vital things we need to do, and also lots of people do have memory problems due to illness, or stressful lives. BUT if we stretch our memory muscles regularly, our memory improves, and so does our concentration and focus. Try to have a few times every week when you’re doing something non-essential and have to remember things without making a list. This can be something as simple as finding a memory game online, or digging out that pack of cards and having a few games of ‘Pairs’. Try going to the shops without a list (and with a budget!) – note for this last one, you are NOT allowed to chant a memorised list like a mantra all the way there!

Lists and Goals can be fantastic, but as well as giving ourselves comfortable boundaries and building up our motivation and confidence, we also need to be able to live without that piece of paper telling us what we should be doing every minute of the day. Lists can be great, and even essential, but they can also become a crutch, and tie us up into knots.

So, that’s my list about lists, and I’ve very nearly reached my goal of writing an article of 1500 words. But not quite. Maybe I should write a list…


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Welcome to HubPages! This hub was an interesting take on a much-heralded subject. Hope to see more from you.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 5 years ago

      Thanks Kathkeen! I look forward to exploring your hubs in greater detail - from your profile it sounds like you have a fascinating life.

    • nancynurse profile image

      Nancy McClintock 5 years ago from Southeast USA

      Great article. I love that you included the beginning of lists also. thanks

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 5 years ago

      Thanks nancynurse, sometimes I make so many lists I get nothing else done! :o)

    • livingpah2004 profile image

      Milli 5 years ago from USA

      Great adviee. Thanks for sharing it. Voted up!

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