Five types of lists that will help you solve your life’s biggest dilemmas


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Most people, when asked about lists, have a hard time naming more than a handful: Shopping lists. To-do lists. Guest lists. Bucket lists.

What else is there, right?

Marilyn McEntyre‘s book, Make a List: How a Simple Practice can Change our Lives and Open our Hearts” might answer that question. McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at University of California, Berkeley and former professor of English at Westmont College, believes that writing a list could literally change your life.

“They can take you inward to where you carry fears or hopes or unexplored possibilities that you’ve tucked away while you’ve been too busy to attend to them,” McEntyre says.

When compiling lists, the sky’s the limit.

If you have troubles getting started, McEntyre says, give yourself an arbitrary number of items at the outset such as “Ten things that…” “Seven ways to…” or  “Five words for…” Write for three to ten minutes. As soon as you have a title, McEntyre adds, something will start to happen.

Below, McEntyre offers five kinds of lists to experiment with:

1. Lists that clarify your concerns

Helpers I’d like to hire. Even if you can’t afford them, this might help sort out what kinds of help are actually available.

Things I’m afraid of. This might seem to invite anxiety, but actually, naming fears is often a first step toward dispelling or dealing with them.

Changes it might be time to make. Not a “should” list, but a place to consider what season of life you’re in and what’s actually shifting.

2. Lists that deepen self-awareness

What I want now. As opposed to what I wanted five years ago, for example. Wants are an important part of self-knowledge — even those you know may never be fully addressed.  

Where grace happens. This list invites awareness of small and large ways gifts have dropped into your life: kindnesses, opportunities, small surprises, moments of feeling safe or loved. 

Things to let go of. This might be actual objects that are cluttering your closet or garage. They could also be habits, fixations. I like to call thm “clingings” and “clutchings.” 

3. Lists that help equip you for the public conversation

Loaded words. You might start, for instance, with “Republican” or “Democrat” or “freedom” or “war.”  A list of words that have a high “charge” to them can help you be more discerning about how you and others use them, and slow you down to consider what, exactly, they have come to signify — and how to use them more responsibly.

Organizations I want to support. A practical exercise in finding out who’s doing things in the world that you think need to be done.

What every adult should be able to do. This will likely include things you are able to do, and some things you aren’t.  It’s a place to envision what a well-educated populace might look like, and how we need to count on other adults’ competence.

4. Lists that enrich relationships

What I’ve noticed about you over the past year. This one is especially good for those long-term familial relationships that seem to run on automatic. It’s a way of coming to see what is emerging in someone else’s life, what’s evolving, what’s unfolding — and of honoring that growth.

What I want for you. This might be written by a teacher for her students, for example, or a parent for a child, or a friend for a friend. It might be on a birthday card; a particularly hopeful and encouraging way to offer more than “wishes.”

Elders I’ve been given. Name and honor those who have guided, inspired, taught, protected, admonished, modeled, and invited you into and further into adult life.  It might lead to some rather fine thank-you notes!)

5. Lists that permit you to play

Ways to spend a completely free afternoon. “Completely free” doesn’t happen very often. It’s good to imagine it. You might find a way to get it.

What’s fun after forty. Another good one for birthdays—and for encouraging oneself, if one is of “a certain age” to claim life where it is.

Favorites. A time-honored kind of list that can be made new in all sorts of ways. Favorite books to reread, favorite forms of fun that involve no food, favorite ways to make hateful tasks tolerable.

Snack On This: 

If you’ve already mastered the art of list making, take it to the next level, with creative writing. In this TEDxMonterey talk, award winning freelance writer Brad Herzog shares some of his secrets for coming up with great ideas. Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children.


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