A good list can help you in so many ways. Here are three I particularly value as an HSP.

I’ve written dozens of articles about self-care for highly sensitive people (HSPs), including the crucial basics: ample sleep, solitude, self-compassion, self-regulation, and spiritual connection.

Somehow, though, I’ve never written about lists. That is crazy, because I’m the Queen of Lists. I LOVE lists. In fact, “make great lists” belongs 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. Best of all, 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 pull off anything from a birthday party to a cross-country move, while remaining (reasonably) cool and unruffled.

As David Allen comments 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 always tried to stay relaxed while being productive. Unfortunately, my head frequently felt muddled, and my sense of control was certainly not relaxed. Could I really experience the “elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency” he described, while remaining calm?

The answer was “Yes.” And mindful list making is one of his key tools. I’ll say more below about Getting Things Done. But first let’s look at three ways a good list can help you 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, overarousal, emotional intensity or empathy, and sensory sensitivity. When you make a list, you leverage the first of these attributes—your deep-processing ability.

It doesn’t matter whether you are planning a simple trip to the grocery store, or a complex voyage to India: when you think through an event, activity, or project ahead of time, listing actions or items, you give your deep-thinking mind a chance to anticipate all sorts of considerations and possible complications.

This foresight empowers you to prevent snags, protecting your future self (and others you are planning for) from unpleasantly overarousing problems. This kind of preparation is a natural expression of the conscientiousness for which HSPs are noted. We really, really want things to go well.

Fortunately, our brains are hard-wired to help us ensure that. Your thoughtful lists enable you to remember complex sequences and track multiple items. A good list can help you follow through on big responsibilities, confident that you won’t forget things.

2—Good lists prevent mistakes when you are overstimulated

Overarousal is a built-in challenge for HSPs. When I get overaroused, my functionality plunges from “very good” to “utterly useless.” My brain overheats. I try hard to avoid those brain-melting situations where many things (or people) are coming at me all at once. For those times when they do happen, though, we can learn from professionals like surgeons, airline pilots, and construction project managers.

These people process multiple streams of information every day while making crucial decisions under pressure. Their preferred support strategy? 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. He also recounts Sully Sullenberger’s famous Hudson River landing, during which Sullenberger coolly followed a checklist developed by flight experts for just such a scenario.

I have my own version of these life-saving checklists. For a recent vacation, my partner and I had to pack four people and six days’ worth of food into two cars. In addition, I needed to pack my own suitcase. We had two house guests, and my work schedule was full.

In the past, all this would have overwhelmed me: too much, all at once. But this time, I was clear-headed and amazingly calm, because I had lists for everything. Personal Packing. Meals. Perishable groceries. Non-perishable groceries. I simply did what my lists told me to do. The system worked perfectly.

To be clear, I had made these lists earlier, when I was calm and focused. Like Sully Sullenberger landing his plane on the Hudson River (well, sort of), I didn’t have to think. Even if I did get over-aroused, it didn’t matter. Knowing this made me even calmer, because fear of getting over-aroused and forgetting things is itself overarousing (a phenomenon I call 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. These strategies exist, however, in service of a higher purpose: to clear your mind. You do that by getting your projects and “to-do” lists out of your head and into trusted systems. For HSPs, this brain-emptying process is a godsend.

Why? Because if we’re holding a fact or an idea in our brain, we’re hardwired to think about it. Deeply. If we try to hold too many facts and ideas at once, our brains simply overheat trying to process them all. A good list can help you empty out your brain and give it a rest.

To put this another way, lists, along with systems, templates, and routines, set you up to do a lot without having to think too much. That way, you can stay cool, even when things heat up around you. Even better, should any unexpected glitches in fact occur, your mind is free to address them.

HSPs need an uncluttered mental environment

These brain-sparing strategies are helpful for everyone. However, HSPs particularly stand to gain from skillful list-making because we are affected by our environment much more than non-HSPs are. This tendency is called environmental susceptibility.

If you are highly sensitive, you can easily see how your external environment affects you. You can’t help but notice your sensitivity to fumes, bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, other people’s energy, and so on. However, the concept of environmental susceptibility also applies to your internal environment.

I don’t have to tell you how much your mind state affects you… and to be clear, this internal environment includes any tasks you haven’t yet completed, and haven’t captured on a trusted list. Because your brain is designed to create and synthesize, not to hold and store information, and it has a habit of pinging you repeatedly about something you haven’t done.

Even worse, your brain has no sense of timing or priorities. It will ping you randomly, yet persistently, whether or not you could possibly take action in this moment. It’s like having all your phone notifications turned on, all the time. Ugh.

I’m firmly committed to the lifelong task of taming my mind. In the meantime, however, I’m resigned to the reality that it goes wherever I go. Short of cutting off my head (with the inevitable unpleasant side effects), the best antidote I know for painful overarousal is an effective, thorough list.

Do lists help you stay sane? Please post your comments and questions on the Sustainably Sensitive blog page.

Image © Emily Agnew 2024

Note: This post is an updated version of the article that first appeared here September 4, 2018.