Around here, we rely on to-do lists. They help us track what needs to get done, make sure nothing gets forgotten and hold us accountable for the day’s tasks.
…or do they? While we’ll be the first to argue the virtues of list-making, there are actually some credible sources that say we could be doing it better—lots better, in fact.
So how can you turn your to-do list into a source of empowerment instead of anxiety? By making a few simple tweaks to the way you make and follow your list.
Turn one list into three
You’ve heard of those crazy people who make lists of the lists they need to make. We won’t name names, but we know a few!
Turns out, they might actually be on to something.
When we have too many things on our single to-do list, it can cause us to be overwhelmed before we even get started. Blame your brain!
According to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the average person is typically responsible for 150 separate tasks at any given time.
However, the human brain can only handle a tiny fraction of that at once. Scientists believe the average person can realistically only hold between four and seven tasks in their working memory at any one time. After that, things start to slip and we begin to make mistakes.
Pretty far off from remembering 150 tasks, right?!
Combat to-do list fatigue by keeping three separate running lists: a Now list, a Tomorrow list and a Later list. Their functions match their names.
Your Now list should only contain urgent items—two to three things that absolutely have to get done today.
Your Tomorrow list isn’t necessarily items that all need to get done tomorrow, but ideally within the next few days. These items might get broken into smaller tasks that appear on your Now list.
Finally, your Later list includes everything else. It might be that wedding present you need to buy, the meeting next week you need to prepare for or the concert you bought tickets to next month: basically, things you don’t want to forget but don’t necessarily need to act on now.
In this way, you’re freeing up space in your brain that’s usually dedicated to juggling all of these revolving tasks that don’t require immediate action. Your attention is freed up for those most important tasks—your Now list—that you need to move on immediately.
Redefine stubborn tasks
The only drawback of keeping three lists is that inevitably, some things will never make it onto the Now list. Either they don’t have a hard and fast deadline—cleaning the garage, say—or they’re something you’re absolutely dreading (again, cleaning the garage!).
Force some movement on these so-called “stuck” tasks by redefining them into a single next step forward.
For example, if it is cleaning out the garage that’s hanging over your head, you might change the task from “clean out garage” to “buy XL garbage bags.”
Then, a few days later, the next task might be “sort out items for Goodwill.” Finally, the day will come when it’s time to fill and discard those garbage bags and the task will be complete.
You can use this same system for redefining "stuck" work-related tasks.
Always make a plan to completion
Some tasks simply won’t get crossed off in a single day, and that’s okay. Sometimes our brain needs a break to circle back on a complex topic, or we get interrupted by a phone call or visitor. Unfinished tasks are a part of life, but they pull a funny little trick on our brains.
It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, and it’s the phenomenon that happens when an unfulfilled goal hinders your ability to complete another task—even one that’s totally unrelated.
Scientists measured this effect by giving groups of participant’s two tasks: a warm-up exercise and a larger brainstorming exercise. The first group of participants was allowed to finish the warm-up, but the second group was interrupted and made to move on before the warm-up was finished.
What happened? It’s pretty crazy.
The second group performed worse on the brainstorming exercise because their brains were still preoccupied with the unfinished task from earlier.
But the next part of the experiment is even crazier. A portion of the second group members were allowed to make a simple plan for finishing the warm-up exercise, i.e. a to-do list of what they’d do when they came back to the task.
And guess what. Sure enough, the people who made a plan to completion were not affected by the Zeigarnik Effect that hindered the others' performance on the second exercise.
The lesson for us is that it’s normal to leave some tasks unfinished, but you’ll do your brain a great favor by adding the next step in the process to your Tomorrow list.
Create a done list
Doesn’t it feel good when you cross something off your to-do list? You bet it does. And yes, there’s a reason behind those warm fuzzies.
It’s known as the “progress principle,” and it states that the single greatest motivation booster to accomplish a task is the perception of making progress toward the goal. Meaning, for example, you might not land the client of your dreams today, but simply getting them to agree to a meeting will work wonders for your sense of morale.
You can put the progress principle to work for you by making a quick ‘Done list’ at the end of your day. It might be as simple as re-listing the items on your Now list that you crossed off earlier, but it’s a way for your brain to actively recognize the progress you’ve made toward all of the things on all of your lists.
Ready to transform your to-do list? Go ahead and write ‘learn to be more productive’ on your Done list right now.