How a To-Do List Is Like a Book*

I have been keeping a highly developed to-do list since I was in high school. Yes, long before you could sashay into Target and choose from dozens of decorated calendar notebooks, I had a yellow legal pad with a single day of the week scrawled atop the first seven pages.**

I can’t live without my daybook.

So I was delighted when I saw this article in Fast Company: “How Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain.” The writer says there are at least three psychological benefits to making a list:

1 Writing makes your memory’s job easier
2 Planning turns abstract goals into concrete work
3 It helps you clear the weeds you couldn’t see

You can imagine my further delight when I correlated this to writing—outlining—a book. Think about it.

1 Writing makes your memory’s job easier

You’ve got a great idea for a novel. You can see it all in your head; you’ve been thinking about it for days. Sure, sure, some of the scenes are a little nebulous but— Stop. This is where you should start writing it down. Not only because you might forget some of it but because the very act of writing it down will solidify what you do know. You can fill in the nebulous stuff later. If you’re not carrying a sketchbook around with you everywhere you go, you’re missing a golden opportunity. Capture your ideas in writing. Sketch them out in a paragraph or briefly outline them. You will never regret this.

2 Planning turns abstract goals into concrete work

The abstract goal in this case is a finished manuscript—a finished novel with all the nebulous scenes filled in, a novel that goes from A to Z with every scene leading us to the next. Yeah, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair in order to accomplish this. And if you’ve already sketched and outlined, every moment your butt is in the chair will be a fruitful one—because you’ve already given it some thought, and because writing it down puts it on your brain’s creative agenda. Remember our discussion about process? Preparation (note-making, outlining) leads to incubation (thinking), which leads, ultimately, to the actual writing.

3 It helps you clear the weeds you couldn’t see

Some months ago I got an email from an author who was writing her synopsis to send to me for commentary. “Writing the synopsis is proving both painful and very useful,” she wrote. “It’s like climbing a mountain, looking down, and seeing everything in the valley. The synopsis made me see the plot for what it really is: ragged and full of holes.” Well, yes—and that’s a good thing.

I do this when I’m writing editorial notes too: I simply begin writing, and what I think seems to find its way out of the keyboard into the document. I can’t explain it, really, but I can attest that the physical act of writing something down (particularly an outline or a sketch) really helps clarify your thoughts.

Now, I know there are plenty of you who are already doing this. But I also know quite a few seat-of-the-pants writers who just … begin writing. I want to encourage y’all to give outlining a try.

You never know what good may come of it.

* OK, OK, like an outline. But be honest, would you have read it if I’d said a to-do list is like an outline? No.
** Paper works better for me. Most of my life is digital, but this one paper thing remains.


Tweet: Give outlining a try, y’all. You never know what good may come of it.
Tweet: I can’t live without my daybook. You can’t live without your outline. Truth!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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