Write lists

Austin Kleon’s “HOW TO BE HAPPY” list from his book Keep Going

Does anyone else love making lists? Quite often I love making a list more than anything I’ve listed.

Lists bring order to the chaotic universe. I love making lists. Whenever I need to figure out my life, I make a list. A list gets all your ideas out of your head and clears the mental space so you’re actually able to do something about them.

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

Austin Kleon, in his book Keep Going, notes the benefits of writing and keeping lists. He mentions numerous creatives who make lists, from artists like David Shrigley and John Porcellino to writers like Steven Johnson and Mary Roach. List-making is a way to curate a collection of all our messy thoughts and put them into order.

In my last post, I talked about writing through the noise in my head. Sometimes writing a list helps cut through that noise.

Lists are a good way to get the creative muscles working, too. Recently, when I’ve struggled to write, I’ve made a list. Once I start a list, it tends to grow naturally. It might not clear the noise, but it helps to turn the volume down.

For example, my day job is a six-month contract due to end in early December. The looming job search is omnipresent in the back of my mind. Unemployment taught me that enjoying literally anything and being creative is a challenge when all you can think about is the job you don’t have. Knowing I’ll be right back in that position is not a calming thought.

Thinking about where I might like to sell my labour always cues a spiral. But list-making helps (genuinely, truly). I’ve made lists of what kind of roles sound appealing to me — even if I’m unsure of their existence. (Frankly, if someone’s going to ask me about my dream job then I feel obligated to actually dream and think in semi-fantastical terms). Likewise, I’ve listed roles/tasks I don’t enjoy, using what I’ve learnt from jobs I’ve held.

If you’re a creator — whatever your medium — struggling to create, perhaps a place to start is making lists.

Writing this post got me so enthused about making lists that I went back over some of the lists I’ve written this month. I thought I’d share some examples of what you can list as a means of inspiration…

A list of lists:

1. Titles without a story

All stories need a good title. But what do you do when you have a good title for a story without a plot or characters? You add them to a list. Maybe it’ll spark an idea for a story later down the line. Or maybe you’ll have a piece with no title but find one of your old titles that perfectly fits.

2. Characters without a story

I have so many homeless characters, by which I mean fictional beings without an imaginary world to inhabit. Some are even older than my ambitions to be an author, whilst others have moved from abandoned project to abandoned project. The list grows and grows, but perhaps one day my fictional children will leave the nest and find a plot to follow.

3. Stories without characters or titles

And then there are the stories with great concepts that might even have a plot worked out. However, what they don’t have is characters or a title. Perhaps by zooming out and looking at all three lists together, a complete story will form.

Then I’ll have something to add to my next list…

4. To-writes

It could also be a “To-draws” list if you’re an artist, which is what David Shrigley does. Or it could be a “To-records” if you make music or videos. You understand what I’m saying. A list of all the creative projects you want to work on. In theory, with a list like this, you’ll never be short of an idea again.

5. “Spark file”

Much of what has previously been mentioned could all be lumped into a single document called a “spark file.” Kleon writes that this is Steven Johnson’s method. Every time he has an idea, he throws it into his single spark file. He then revisits it every couple of months.

6. To-learns

Similar to the classic to-do but instead focuses on skills or knowledge you wish to learn. You could keep a general to-learn list for things you don’t have much experience in. Things like “social media marketing” or “drawing” or “art as therapy.” Or if you know a little about them, your list can be more specific. Such as how to write Facebook ads that convert into sales, or how to sketch realistic human faces or how art can be used in therapies with young people to explore trauma.

7. To-not-dos

We all know about to-do lists, but what about to-not-dos? Sometimes, in addition to reminders on what must be done, we need to identify distractions or tasks that cause us distress. Crossing off something because you succeeded in not doing something might just be as satisfying as crossing off a task you did complete.

8. “Someday/Maybe”

Another list idea from Kleon’s Keep Going, and this one is from productivity expert David Allen. Think of all those things you’d love to do but can’t right now due to insufficient time, funds, energy, etc. Add them to the “Someday/Maybe” list. It could be a destination you want to visit, a video game you’d love time to play or a personal challenge you want to attempt. You don’t have to let it go; you can just put it aside for now.

9. Pros vs. cons

Apparently, Charles Darwin made a pros vs. cons list before deciding whether to get married. As someone who is trying to get better at making decisions, I should try writing lists where I weigh up the pros and cons.

10. Problems vs. solutions

There might be a better label for this, but it’s the most concise one that came to me. This idea comes from a friend’s dad. She explained that he first makes a list of all the things that are making him angry or generally causing him problems. Then he orders them by priority before then listing potential solutions to each. Sounds like a healthy way to deal with conflicts and stressors. Perhaps I should give this one a go, too.

11. People you most enjoy spending time with

Noticing the people who make us feel good and energise us is valuable personal research. Circumstances outside of our control can mean we spend more time with people who do little for our wellbeing, rather than with the people we most enjoy spending time with. Not all of us have the privilege of controlling our time and how much we can dedicate to others. But if we know who we like most, we can treasure our time with them all the more.

12. People you least enjoy spending time with

Likewise, it’s valuable personal research to know who makes you feel shitty, especially if they leech your energy. There is such a thing as an energy vampire, people who drain you dry because you spent time with them. Kleon also writes about this in his book Show Your Work! One of the most infamous energy vampires was Pablo Picasso.

His granddaughter Marina claimed that he squeezed people like one of his tubes of oil paints. You’d have a great time hanging out all day with Picasso, and then you’d go home nervous and exhausted, and Picasso would go back to his studio and paint all night, using the energy he’d sucked out of you.

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

Know who the energy vampires are in your life. Cut them out if you can, give them as little of you as possible if you can’t.

13. Favourite places

This could be where you had the best holidays, or it could simply be where you most like to buy coffee. Knowing where makes/made you happy is just as valuable as knowing who.

14. Comfort viewing

A list of all your favourite TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, TikToks or whatever else you watch for comfort when you’re feeling down. Alternatively, if you’re not one for a TV binge, perhaps a list of your comfort books or video games.

15. Favourite tropes

Listing your favourite tropes can be fun on its own. However, knowing your favourite tropes is another bit of useful personal research. If you’re a creator, you know what tropes you’d most enjoy playing with. But from a consumer perspective, it also gives you an idea of what other media out there you might enjoy.

16. Icebreakers

Breaking the ice isn’t one of my specialities. Love them or hate them, arming yourself with a list of icebreakers can’t hurt. If you don’t use them IRL, maybe one will go viral if you post it to Twitter.

17. Things to look forward to

When it all feels pointless, looking forward to something helps. You could list intangible things with no specific time frames, e.g. getting married, getting the job you want, publishing a book, etc. But it’s a lot better if you have things set in stone to look forward to, i.e. holidays, anniversaries, parties, day trips, national holidays, the day a new season of your favourite TV show airs, and so on. Don’t have any dates to look forward to? You best change that ASAP and make some plans.

18. The day’s accomplishments

I got into bullet journaling this year and it has been a life-changer. I don’t always succeed in completing my tasks (I’m not very good at setting realistic expectations, truth be told), but it means I take stock of all I have done at the end of every day. Some days are light on accomplishments, other days I have so much to list I end up forgetting something. But whether your top accomplishment was pulling yourself out of bed before 12pm or making something, it’s good to keep track.

19. Things that got you through the day/week/month/year

Last month, I made a list of all the things that got me through August in my bullet journal. I do also keep a daily gratitude log. Every year, Austin Kleon makes a list of 100 things that made his year. I’m considering doing the same — although I may stick to a top 50 (my posts get too long as it is :D). Whatever the approach, it’s always good to make note of the things that get us through the days. We should remind ourselves what to be grateful for.

20. Top 10 things that make you happy

Much like in the image at the very top of this post.


Make lists. Make art. Make it through the noise.