4 Ways That Your Brain’s Love of Listicles is Bad News for Taking Action

list catLists…

Why do we love them so much?

The truth is, our brains seem to be wired in a way that inherently loves lists.

This isn’t a bad thing, unless you’re looking to make a lifestyle change or improve yourself in some way, like lose weight or get in shape. In that case, the usual kind of list posts (listicles) we see can actually do you more harm than good – unless you read them a little differently.

I’ll give you a 4 step method for turning any list into an action plan below, but first, let’s look at why lists are so inherently popular and why this negatively affects our ability to take action to improve our lifestyle.

1. Our brains love easily digestible information

Lists make everything easier by doing the hard work of analysis and categorization for us, and then wrapping that up into a comprehensive package of information we need to know on the subject. We simply have to scan it to quickly pick up the main points.

Why is this bad for taking action?

Because it might just be enough information to let you know something exists, but not really enough information to tell you exactly how you need to get started.

For example, say you want to find the best ways to lose weight. You come across this article which gives you the top 10 tips to lose weight, but no solid plan for implementing any of them.

“Yes, starting a diet is a great way to lose some weight. I think I’ll do that,” you think. Okay, but now you start researching types of diet. The amount of information you unearth is overwhelming, so you think back to the list.

“Well, there’s probably something else there that’s easier to learn about.” But the same thing happens and you still haven’t chosen how you’re going to lose weight, much less think about how you need to get started.

2. Reading a list is like opening a bag of potato chips…

You just keep going, even if you’re not getting much out of it. Because a list is a finite package of information we want to know about, we have a desire to get to the end.

You know where a list starts and where it ends, and the numbers make it easy to skim the main points. You can get to the end very quickly and without much effort. According to the paradox of choice, this makes us happier.

You see, the paradox of choice states that we are actually less happy and less likely to make choices when we have too much information to process. A list helps us feel like we’ve processed a large amount of information almost effortlessly, and that feels much better than researching everything on our own.

Why is this bad for taking action?

The satisfaction you feel from quickly ingesting so much information is merely an illusion that delays the real action or decision that needs to be taken. If you want to get in shape, you find a list of 50 exercises you can do at home. You now know a lot that otherwise would have taken you a lot more time to research and think of on your own. Sweet.

But now you have at least 50 new decisions that need to be made. Namely, which of these exercises is the best for you to do right now? How many should I do? When will I add more? Etc.

That’s 50 chances for your mind to give up on making a decision at all, look at the clock and realize you’ve wasted thirty minutes, and promise to come back to decide tomorrow – which you won’t do. You would have been better off just doing something you already knew, like push-ups or sit-ups. At least you would have gotten some exercise.

And that takes us to the next point…

3. Lists make us feel like we’re super heroes

As far as self-improvement type lists go, you go from wanting an idea about some way to be more productive to having ten new productivity hacks and tactics to adopt. Being the super (wo)man you are, you start putting them all in place the next day at work.

Why is this bad for taking action?

No matter how awesome you are, you will not be able to make changes to your lifestyle as easily as you think you can. Even something as simple as flossing can be difficult to implement on the long term.

When we see a list of things to change about ourselves, like this one of 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself, we nod our head at each item, thinking, “Yeah, I should do that.” We do that all the way down the page. We make a promise to stop doing most of them. We close the tab and manage to do a few of those things for a couple of days before we push them out of our consciousness and slip back to where we were. This is the result of what I call change overwhelm.

When trying to make a change, it’s best just to pick one and work on making that a habit with good habit building techniques. Sure, it would be great to change ten things over night, but it’s not going to happen. Much better to at least be doing one of them a year from now than realizing that another year has passed already and you haven’t made any changes (again).

4. Lists are so… dopamine

Terrible pun, I know. This is a point I haven’t necessarily seen made anywhere else before, so let me explain how dopamine, a hormone, may be related to why we literally devour lists.

I’m no endocrinologist, so let me say it in simple terms. Dopamine is released in your brain as a result of some reward.

That reward then becomes motivation which is why if you stop and think about eating something delicious right now, you can probably make yourself feel hungry. That was a good thing in our evolutionary process because feeling hungry leads you to search for food long before you physically need it.

Dopamine is found in incredibly simple animals all the way up to us. It’s really fascinating so I encourage you to research it a little more if you’re interested.

So how does this tie in to lists, you ask?

Well, reading a list is kind of like a hunt.

First, you see the headline. It has just enough intrigue to be interesting… so you click on it from the sea of other information flying around our newsfeeds.

That wasn’t much effort, so you quickly skip past the intro and find the big number one on the list. That was okay, but this is a list of 99 – awesome. You quickly scroll to the next one, and then the next. Each scroll is almost effortless, and the excitement of finding out what the next point is feeds our appetite for knowledge. We want to find something new, and when we do, we get another release of dopamine.

This cycle reinforces the reward, and strengthens your likeliness to click on list articles again and again.

When we make it to the end of a listicle, our reward meter is completely filled. We feel content, like we’ve just finished a coma inducing Thanksgiving dinner – until we’re ready to binge again during our next break time.

If it’s not obvious yet, this is no bueno for taking action.

The act of being rewarded for doing nothing but scrolling down a page is the science behind all of the habit forming apps you use. It’s no different for listicles, and the reward you feel does not encourage you to take action – if anything, it only reinforces the behavior of skimming to satisfaction.

4 Steps to Turning Any Listicle Into an Action Plan

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of how lists can totally ruin your chances of taking action, let’s talk about how you should read them so that you increase your chances of making real personal growth.

Step 1  – Create a Length Limit

The longer a list is, the more likely you’ll be to fall prey to some of the action destroying forces above. Don’t even click on anything more than ten.

Pro-Tip: You could even “crowdsource” the reading of a really big list to your followers and friends. Just ask them, “Which one of these is the most important.”

With the shorter list your friends have made, you can move on to step two with the results.

Step 2 –  Make a short list of the top three

Skim the headlines and make quick decisions about what the three most relevant points are for you. Don’t think too much. Just choose them. Write them down somewhere.

Step 3 – Choose One

Now, read those three in detail in the post. Think about which one of those three is going to give you the biggest return on your effort. Choose to focus on that one.

Step 4 – Focus on Taking Action

Now, you have one thing that you have promised to take action on. Use Trello, Daily Practice, or simply Google Calendar to make sure you focus on that action every day. It doesn’t have to be a daily action, but however often you need to do it. Try to plan it after something that’s already a habit.

Listicles are everywhere, and a lot of time they’re a fun way to kill a few minutes. If you’re looking for travel or restaurant tips, then they can be really useful.

But for the times you’re looking to actually take action or make a change for personal growth, remember how dangerously deceptive a list post can be. The above tips should help prevent you from losing focus on remembering why you started reading the list in the first place – to learn, take action, and improve yourself.

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Have you effectively used listicles in a way that led to personal growth? Please share your tips in the comments!



Founder at LeafOut
LeafOut is an iPhone app that helps you easily track your experiences, fill your days with more gratitude, and look back on your life -- even if you rarely have the time to sit down and write about it.

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