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Why are Lists so Hard?

Do you struggle with writing lists or think you don’t need to? An injury to the brain can change how we manage life while transitioning through the rewiring stage! Sometimes people close to us will tell us what we should do and how we should do it, but we reject the advice – why do we do that?

TIPS for getting the most out of this article!

  • Pause and consider information or questions before moving on to the next sentence
  • Take your time; try and think of examples of things you struggle with
  • Ask us questions – tell us what you struggle with and what you need to know.
  • Tell us how you feel about lists – talk it through!

Does this happen to you? When someone tells you to make a list, they probably don’t explain why – they think the reason is obvious. white puzzle pieces with a red one on top

Do you reject the idea? If you do, do you know why?

For many people, depending on what you managed to retain in the scope of skills, the reason for making lists isn’t always apparent!

For others, the very mention of the word list leaves them cold. An unconscious dread creeps across the brain like insidious fog blocking the noticing mechanism.

Some people have a greater awareness and love how much lists help them!

While we can all start from varying degrees of bewilderment and dismay, making a list is a good thing to do.

So, we have our first pointer – making lists following an injury to the brain is a good thing to do!

Why do lists help?

What are lists useful for?

Will making lists help you?

What happens when you can’t think of anything to put on the list – there is no starting point.

Lists are a compensatory tool. What does this mean?


Lists can help you support functional impairments caused by the injury to your brain.


Consider what functional impairments you may have and what is getting in the way of managing everyday tasks. For example:

  • are you aware of memory problems?
  • have you noticed it takes your brain a long time to make sense of things?
  • do you often feel overwhelmed even before you start a task?
  • do you get stuck with knowing where to start?
  • are you struggling to match the need to do with what this means?
  • is it often hard for you to think at all – about anything?

There are many reasons for all these examples. One impairment or outcome doesn’t create just one symptom or effect. Multiple dysfunctions gather force together, exacerbating each other. Therefore, rehabilitation focuses on retraining the brain using compensatory tools such as lists.

Noticing your struggles and becoming aware of what is getting in your way can help you want to push harder to instruct and teach your brain so that it rewires.wire in lightbulb forming the shape of a brain

If we always shrink back from all that is arduous, we will inevitably slow down our progress.

Lists can help us know what we want to tackle on a good day. If we write things down as we think of them, we will have a starting point when the good day comes. This is better than having a good day only to fall foul of memory problems which leave us frustrated because we know there were things we wanted to do – but now can’t recall.

Does this happen to you? Do you aimlessly wander on a good day because you can’t remember what you wanted to do?

If this does happen to you, pause a moment, and think about if it would help you to have a go-to list to tackle. Suppose you think a to-do list would help support your brain while it is repairing. In that case, this reflects your intelligence overriding your biological dread, psychological denial, or absence of cognisant awareness.


Noticing what is broken and your willingness to use transitionary support tools will help your brain have confidence in your innate intelligence and who you are!


What else can lists help us with?

Try and think through some situations where having a list might help you. Get some practice by making a list of these!

silhouette of a man with lines and lights making brain connectionsPause a moment and think about if you have made the connection. Have you realised that making lists can help you manage challenging impairments that now interfere with your ability to carry out everyday tasks?

So, what happens when you can’t find a starting point?

Let’s consider two other huge hurdles that often blind us from what would have been obvious before the brain injury.

First, the autopilot! The brain is built to be efficient. It uses repetitive actions to create habits so that we don’t have to stop and think about how to do something every time we do it. The impetus behind these habits keeps functioning.  

When the areas within the cortex are damaged, the impetus fires, but the action doesn’t happen because the parts of the brain that support the action no longer work the same way.

It is a bit like kicking a cemented-down brick.

You will know this is happening to you if you feel you can do things only to find out later that you can’t.

You will likely notice frustration or that you are easily distracted and find it impossible to stay on task. It is often described as an alien or blind driver taking over, sometimes as the ‘ghost within.’

There is a loss of connection between the impetus, which still feels completely normal, and the stagnation that stops you from doing anything. This issue is partly why it can be tough to start writing a list.


You must push past this!


Pushing past immobility is what helps the brain to rewire!

Repetition and practice help the brain to understand what you want from it and what you want it to do. Speaking aloud and giving distinct commands to your brain also help.

For example, you might say, brain, I want to be ready for Christmas. I need to understand my budget. I need to know whom I will buy gifts for. I need to know what to buy when I go shopping.

This practice is also useful for people who lack awareness or insight. These deficits are the other huge hurdle that often blinds us from what would have been obvious before the brain injury.

In brief, a lack of insight or awareness is when the thinking voice in the head is no longer working. You can’t hear inner feedback! You are no longer conscious of the inner narrator.

You can read more about these deficits on our website. Look under ‘understanding brain injury.’ If you need help, please reach out to us at

Logo for GBIA Brain Injury NetworkYou can also join us on the GBIA Brain Injury Network, where we provide educational expert-led webinars, cognitive retraining courses, and more!

The GBIA Network is free to join and is a safe and private space where you can join groups, chat, and learn at your own pace.

Lists can help with the following:

  • overcoming apathy
  • supporting memory function
  • contributing to your household
  • managing everyday demands and tasks
  • remembering things you want to say or ask – for example, at a doctor’s appointment
  • clearing the thinking space in your head
  • making sure you buy the things you need
  • preparing for special occasions – such as Christmas
  • breaking down the steps toward your goals
  • taking the things you need when you go out or away from home

The list above is a good example of how you can bring related information together so that you have a point of focus.

Can you think of more ways lists could be useful to you? Do you forget to pack a snack for your child to take to school – you could make a school list!

Do you forget which chores you have done and when – a list can also form a schedule!

This article was written by Anne Ricketts, who took over twenty years to determine how useful lists could be and why! Experiential psychoeducation has benefits; the main one is that information is related in language and form that you can recognise.

Remember – your brain is broken – not who you are!

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