“Real happiness consists in not what we actually accomplish, but what we think we accomplish” (Charles Green Shaw, American abstract artist)
Ever since I can remember I have always been someone that compiled lists. Back in my youth it was lists of my favourite pop groups, film stars, sports stars, etc. I still make loads of lists but these days they are more likely to be long ‘to do’ lists (in fact, I’ve even written articles on getting the most out of ‘to do’ lists and being organized – see ‘Further reading’ below) or writing articles in the form of lists (in fact, I used to write what I called ‘psychol-lists’ for the British Psychological Society’s in-house magazine The Psychologist). When I make lists I feel more productive, and they are often the spurs to get things done (as long as I actually do the things on the list).
Obviously, list making can be an important activity in the organizational skills of many working individuals. Based on my own observations, most people make lists so they (i) don’t forget things, (ii) don’t procrastinate, (iii) feel in control and focused in what they are doing, (iv) can relieve stress, and (v) can cross things off the list and feel a sense of accomplishment. However, for a minority of people, making lists appears to be obsessive and a mental health issue. In short, there may be a fine line between being organized and being neurotic. From my own personal experience, I know that writing lists can be related to perfectionism. But life isn’t perfect and not completing activities on ‘to do’ lists can raise stress and worry levels. Ironically, the only way some people can deal with this is to make even more lists of things to do.
Obsessive list making is sometimes referred to as glazomania (check out the ‘Manias’ page at The Scorpio Tales website). Online dictionaries tend to define glazomania as either “a passion for list making” or “an unusual fascination with making lists”. However, the term ‘glazomania’ doesn’t appear to be used much academically. I did come across one recent paper in Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, by Dr. Urs Staeheli that mentioned it:
“Recently, quite a number of coffee-table books have been published that collect different sorts of everyday lists. Some authors even speak of a ‘glazomania‘ (Cagen 2007) – that is, an uncontrolled urge to produce lists and a fascination with list-making”
However, there was no other information provided. I managed to track down the 2007 reference to Sasha Cagen’s book (To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us). The book includes creative list-making exercises with the aim of helping individuals to “get in touch with their passion for life, inside and out of work, and refocus them on what brings them alive”. Cagen now makes a living on writing and giving workshops on the benefits of list making (one of her major clients being Google)
Although the term ‘glazomania’ is seldom used academically or clinically, obsessive list making is often mentioned as one of the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As one online admission I came across noted:
“I have OCD, and recently my OCD flares up in the form of compulsive list making. This behavior totally affects my ability to be productive because I am constantly afraid of forgetting something and of spending time doing the wrong thing. Does anyone have any tips on how to break the cycle?”
The Wikipedia entry on obsessive-compulsive personality disorder notes that the main symptoms are “preoccupation with remembering and paying attention to minute details and facts, following rules and regulations, compulsion to make lists and schedules, as well as rigidity/inflexibility of beliefs or showing perfectionism that interferes with task-completion. Symptoms may cause extreme distress and interfere with a person’s occupational and social functioning” (my emphasis)
Psychologically, an argument could be made that obsessive list makers are simply trying to create an illusion of control in otherwise chaotic lives. The reason whyindividuals with OCD make lists compulsively is that they often afraid (in some cases, to the point of being phobic) that they will forget something important (even though research shows they do not have memory problems). These (arguably unnecessary) lists provide a reminder to carry out daily activities (i.e. brushing teeth, making breakfast, etc.). As with other OCD-type behaviours, the action of making a list helps the individual to feel psychologically better (albeit temporarily). The etiological roots may lie in the fact that the sufferer may at some point in their past history have been reprimanded severely, or repeatedly, by others for innocently forgetting things that were important. The OCD Types website adds:
“They never learn that they do not need the list to remember things. People with OCD may also make lists to remember things that may be contaminated to later wash or avoid, which also contributes to the OCD process. List-making can be in writing or verbalized aloud”.
In 2010, the BBC reported an exhibition at the Archives of American Art in Washington featuring lists made by eminent artists (everything from “scribbled on scraps of paper” to the “elaborately illustrated” including lists by Pablo Picasso, Alfred Konrad, Oscar Bluemner, Eerp Saarinen and Harry Bertoia). Bluemner even kept lists of lists. The curator of the exhibition (Liza Kirwin) told the BBC that:
“In trying to give order to his life, [Bluemner] obscures the clarity of the inventory of his work. He’s completely obsessed with this type of record keeping…This very mundane and ubiquitous form of documentation can tell you a great deal about somebody’s personal biography, where they’ve been and where they’re going. People can relate to this form of documentation because so many people are list keepers and organise their lives this way”.
In the same article, the BBC interviewed the US psychoanalyst Dr. Michael Maccoby who claimed that there are various types of list makers. However, there was little detail and the only quote in relation to types of list makers claimed: “The extreme is the obsessive who has to make lists of everything. These are people who have an unconscious fear that everything is going to be out of control if they don’t make a list”. As far as I am aware, there is no published empirical research on personality types and list making although there is some psychological literature showing that list making – as part of time management practices – appears to have some beneficial effects on both student grade point averages and workplace productivity.
Finally, a few months ago, an online article by Dr. Carrie Barron at the Psychology Today website provided a brief summary of why making lists is psychologically good for people. I’m not sure about the empirical basis of her claims but they seem to have reasonable face validity. I’ll leave you with her reasons (her verbatim list of “six great benefits”!). In summary, Barron believes that lists:
- “Provide a positive psychological process whereby questions and confusions can be worked through.
- Foster a capacity to select and prioritize. This is useful for an information-overload situation.
- Separate minutia from what matters, which is good for identity as well as achievement.
- Help determine the steps needed. That which resonates informs direction and plan.
- Combat avoidance. Taking abstract to concrete sets the stage for commitment and action. Especially if you add self-imposed deadlines.
- Organize and contain a sense of inner chaos, which can make your load feel more manageable”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Barron, C. (2014). How making lists can quell anxiety and breed creativity. Psychology Today, March 9. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-creativity-cure/201403/how-making-lists-can-quell-anxiety-and-breed-creativity
Cagen, S. (2007). To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Chicago: Touchstone.
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Psycholo-lists. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 240.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). More psycholo-lists. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 9, 384.
Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Tips on…To do lists. British Medical Journal Careers, 332, 215.
Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Tips on…’To do’ lists. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 68, 27-28.
O’Brien, J. (2010). The art of list-making. BBC News, March 3. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8537856.stm
OCD Types (2014). About obsessive-compulsive disorder. Located at: http://www.ocdtypes.com/unusual-compulsions.php
Staeheli, U. (2012). Listing the global: Dis/connectivity beyond representation? Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 13(3), 233-246.
Wikipedia (2014). Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsessive–compulsive_personality_disorder