I love/hate lists and I’m not alone. The human brain is wired for organizing information and using it for effective problem-solving. That’s why we’re drawn to “The 7 Steps to Success” and “The 11 Laws for Loving Yourself” and “The 10 Can’t Miss Tips for Making Awesome Lists”. We crave actionable intelligence, (as the military puts it). There’s just one small but incredibly stubborn problem: we often don’t put the lists to proper use. Well, at least not consistently enough to make a dent in the problem we’re facing. Why not? Research in psychology points to two concepts called cognitive resource allocation and self-concept. Did those terms just make your eyes glaze over? Stay awake, maybe I’ll make a list for you (I will do no such thing).

Cognitive resource allocation means that you and I have limited attention and motivation. If we’re focusing a high percentage of our resources on one venture, we’ll have less to apply to something else. So the more stuff we shove in our heads, the more challenging it is to differentiate, retain, and implement it. Self-concept is the deeply-held beliefs and perceptions we have about our own worthiness and competence. Operating way in the background, it isn’t easily accessible, and rises to the surface only under certain circumstances—it isn’t what you think you think about yourself or how you try to present yourself to others, it’s what you really, secretly believe.

So here’s the deal: if you secretly believe you are unworthy and incapable, not only will you fall short in retaining and implementing the list for overcoming your current challenge, you’ll actually add further ammunition to your already punishing self-concept, because now you’re “a failure” to boot. If setting goals and reaching them has been challenging, take a breath, take a step back, and get ready to simplify. You have to be willing to engage in honest self-assessment with questions like: “Is the person I present to others reflect who I really am?”, “Do I sabotage my own success?”, and “What do I say to myself when I succeed; how about when I fail?” (I know I could totally arrange those questions into a vertical list, but… I. Will. Not.) Here we should take a cue from our brains. They become more efficient by cutting away unnecessary, outdated connections, a process called pruning. After we start identifying beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions that are opposed to our success, we’ve got to start pruning them away in order to make room for healthy, reality-based cognitions. This will often jumpstart our ability to retain and put into practice self-improvement lists precisely because we’ve freed up more mental space through eliminating self-defeating junk.

If your computer’s got a virus, it doesn’t matter how good the new software you run on it is—it’s not going to function. Similarly, if your deeply-held beliefs and perceptions are negative and punitive, it doesn’t matter how many new lists and affirmations you give it, at best, it will be a wash. Get rid of the outdated, obsolete, self-destructive data gumming up the works in order to increase your chances of putting practical strategies to work. If it sounds like it’s got to be a challenging undertaking, then you’re right. But it’s worth it, because you are.

Be well,

Credit // Author: Dr. Joel Núñez

Dr. Joel Núñez is a NJ-state Licensed Clinical Psychologist who loves helping people get out of their own way. Learn more about Joel and his keynotes at You can also follow him on Twitter at @drjoelnunez.