I’ve written dozens of articles about self-care for highly sensitive people (HSPs), including the crucial basics of ample sleep, solitude, and self-compassion.  But looking back, I see I’ve never written about lists. And that is crazy, because I’m a huge fan of lists. In fact, “make great lists” is near the top of my list of best stress-prevention practices!

Using the right lists at the right time, you can make complex, wonderful things happen, and most important, you can do all that without getting overwhelmed.  In fact, lists are so universally effective that I recommend them without hesitation to any sensitive person wishing to keep their stress levels low while pulling off all sorts of fun and challenging life projects.

As David Allen puts it in his invaluable book, Getting Things Done, “It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.” When I first read this I thought, “Wow! Could this be true?” I had spent years trying to function productively, but with a muddled head and a sense of being out of control. So Allen’s bold statement made me eager to experience what he describes as “elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency,” while also staying calm and happy.

And guess what underlies much of his philosophy? The humble list. I’ll say more later about Getting Things Done. But first let’s look at the three reasons even the most modest list can prevent stress and overwhelm.

1— When you take time to make a list, you leverage your HSP strength of deep-processing

Remember the four attributes all HSPs share? They are deep processing, over-arousalemotional intensity or empathy,  and sensory sensitivity. List-making taps into the first of these attributes, our deep processing ability. When you think through an event, activity, or project ahead of time, listing actions or items, you give yourself a chance to consider the implications of your plan. Whether you are planning a simple trip to the grocery store or a complex voyage to India, your deep-thinking mind will anticipate possible complications, empowering you to prevent potential snags.

Anticipating problems in this way is particularly important to us as sensitive people because we are so conscientious. Lists enable you to remember complex sequences and track multiple items, allowing you to take on big responsibilities while feeling confident that you can follow through. With a good list, you know you won’t forget things.

2—Good lists prevent mistakes when you are overstimulated

Over-arousal is an ongoing challenge for us as HSPs. When I get over-aroused, my functionality plunges from “very good” to “utterly useless.”  My brain turns to mush. And nothing overstimulates us more than having multiple things (or people) coming at us at once. Fortunately we can turn for guidance to professions where multiple inputs under stress are the norm. And what do you think is the preferred support strategy for surgeons, airline pilots, and others like them who have to make crucial decisions under intense pressure? Checklists. In his fascinating book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes dramatic improvements in hospital mortality rates that occurred at one hospital when simple checklists were introduced for pre- and post-surgical procedures. And Sully Sullenberger’s famous Hudson River landing was guided by one of many checklists developed by flight experts.

I have my own version of these life-saving checklists. Just this past week I found myself helping to pack four people and six days’ worth of food into two cars, while packing my own suitcase as well. I had been out of my normal routine for five days already, working full-time with my daughter visiting, and my brother had flown in the night before. In the past, this kind of situation would have left me completely overwhelmed. Amazingly, though, I was clear-headed and decently calm. Why? Because I had lists, and I trusted them.

And, in fact, we arrived at our summer place several hours later not having forgotten a single thing, thanks to five lists: once each for my personal packing, meals, groceries, frozen stuff, and non-perishable items.

I had made these lists earlier, when I was calm and focused, and now I simply did what they told me to do. I didn’t have to think, so even if I did get over-aroused, it didn’t matter. And that itself helped me stay calmer, because fear of getting over-aroused and forgetting things is itself over-arousing (welcome to the HSP hall of mirrors.)

3—When you have all your “to-do’s” captured on a trusted list, you can relax

All these very specific lists for packing, groceries, surgical procedures and aviation safety are powerful tools to prevent stress. But even more powerful is the philosophy of life and work underlying good list-making—a philosophy that allows you, as David Allen put it, “to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.” Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, is full of lists and systems. But the whole point of all these strategies is profound: to clear your mind. You do that by getting your projects and “to-do” lists out of your head and into trusted systems. And for us as HSPs, this brain-emptying process is a godsend.

Why? Because we are already wired to think about things a lot, and if we have a lot of things to think about, our minds get overwhelmed and we can spiral downwards. Lists are a key way of emptying your brain. Along with the sister strategies of systems, templates, and routines, lists enable you to accomplish tasks without having to think too much. The end result is a wonderfully calm and peaceful mind state, even when things get crazy.

I have a number of routines in place for my business: for example, I have to track my expenses quite closely for tax and health insurance purposes, so I have checklists I use to make sure I’ve covered everything each month. I’m not a numbers person, but all those numbers don’t overwhelm me, because I’ve set up my checklists so I don’t have to think.

Again, these thought-minimizing strategies are helpful for anyone, not just HSPs. But they are particularly important for sensitive people because of another trait we share, namely environmental susceptibility. We are much more affected by our environment than non-HSPs. But it is not only our external environment that affects us with fumes, noises, or other people’s energy:  our internal environment has a huge effect on us. And that internal environment includes all the undone things that are pinging us internally. Your head goes wherever you go. And if you are trying to hold a zillion thoughts in your head all at once, you are going to get overwhelmed. Lists are the powerful antidote to this kind of HSP overwhelm.

What is your experience with lists as a stress-prevention tool? Please post your comments and questions here on the Listening Post blog page.