The Creativity Cure

A do-it-yourself prescription for happiness

How Making Lists Can Quell Anxiety and Breed Creativity

Six benefits of a small, solace-producing obsession.

More than a few clients have told me about the pleasure they take in making lists or re-writing them. “I love lists!” is a common quip from mothers to professors. In a culture with a surfeit of choices, lists can be a way to coalesce and conquer. A list helps you discern and progress with a clearer, lighter head. Scratching out to-dos can be a healthy self-protective action, or a healthy “defense” (obsession.)

Obsessional character is not always pathological. Well-channeled, it can lead to success as well as solace.

 Here are the Six Great Benefits of Lists. Lists:

  1. Provide a positive psychological process whereby questions and confusions can be worked through. True purposes surface.
  2. Foster a capacity to select and prioritize. This is useful for an information-overload situation.
  3. Separate minutia from what matters, which is good for identity as well as achievement.
  4. Help determine the steps needed. That which resonates informs direction and plan.
  5. Combat avoidance. Taking abstract to concrete sets the stage for commitment and action. Especially if you add self-imposed deadlines.
  6. Organize and contain a sense of inner chaos, which can make your load feel more manageable.

Lists can create a sense of inner mastery but you might feel guilty or as if you are wasting precious time if you take the time to make them. With so much information flooding you, it is easy to be reactive rather than proactive. You may feel you can barely stop to breathe.

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It is great to respond to the flurry of queries in the moment and you may have no choice but to do so. However for the sake of self-knowledge, note if you feel empowered via hop-to, or if you feel chaotic, scattered, unclear and out of control. If it is the latter, it may be worth an occasional time-out to list. You might be more efficient in the long run. A slow, insidious path to excess reactivity can exacerbate anxiety. A list can take you back to feeling pro-active, grounded, calm and clear.

One client took off a whole week just to organize her home and make lists and she said it was a truly happy time.

Lists offer opportunities for creativity as well. Clients have told me that incorporating color and design into the outline decreases the sense of drudgery. Research (Ethel Person, MD, Feeling Strong) shows that when we entwine pleasure (play) with duty (work) we are much more productive. Such an approach imbues the obligation with a feeling of autonomy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy purports that imagery is useful for people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder so making your list beautiful via spacing, formatting, graphics and font choice is an added way to quell agitation. And in general, streamlining to the essentials creates air and light in the mind, which also feeds creativity.

 A photographer friend once told me that the blank page is just as important as the filled page.

 Lists can provide inner solace.

Carrie Barron, M.D., is a psychiatrist and co-author of The Creativity Cure: A Do-It Yourself Prescription for Happiness, which she wrote with her husband, Alton Barron.

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