The Psychology Of The To-Do List

To Do ListIn a world filled with electronic devices, I still get great satisfaction by crossing out items on a handwritten to-do list. In fact, I find that I am more likely to complete a task if I write it down on a piece of paper. Much more likely than if it’s on an electronic list or an email reminder.

There is scientific evidence that the act of planning activities through to-do lists reduces the burden on the brain. The most famous example is from Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. The so-called Zeigarnik effect was apparently inspired by observing waiters could only remember the details of orders before they had been served. Once completed, the details disappeared from their memory.

In the 1927 (!) experiment, Zeigarnik asked participants to perform numerous simple tasks, like stringing beads and solving puzzles. For some of the tasks, the participants were interrupted while for others they were allowed to complete the tasks. Afterwards she asked which activities the participants remembered. The participants were twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed. This supports the notion that crossing off items on a to-do list frees up our brain to focus on other things.

More recently, Professors Baumeister and Masicampo verified the Zeigarnik Effect by showing that people performed worse on a brainstorming task when they were unable to finish a warm-up activity. Because they hadn’t crossed the warm-up off of their mental to-do list, it interfered with the subsequent task. However, if the researchers allowed people to make concrete plans on how to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the brainstorming task substantially improved. The written plan seemed to remove the distraction.

The implications are clear. Even when you are overwhelmed with tasks, the most important thing you can do is make a plan on how to get them done, starting with a to-do list. Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective.

For a very effective and popular system based on this science, check out David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.

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12 Responses to The Psychology Of The To-Do List

  1. akismet-589fd765d2f6871082fdbc666d3b9670 March 2, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Jonathan, thank you well said. Loved it and I agree wholeheartedly. 🙂

  2. Olivia Falkenstein March 3, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    Absolutely agree. Despite online project tools, outlook reminders, etc, I still have my piece of paper with “to do”s at hand any time. Another great tip I once got was to use an “urgent/important” quadrant and sort the tasks in the 4 areas, which helps focus accordingly. Was very helpful when I was working for SAP in Romania 🙂

  3. Trish Harman March 3, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    Absolutely agree! I love lists both for work and home. i even have specific kinds of paper I like to write my TO DO lists on…yellow, junior legal pads if you are cuious 🙂

  4. kevinjenscox March 3, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    To-do lists are my #1 stress management therapy- in work and home life. Whenever management puts a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) on me, my first course of action is to draft a to-do list. Depending on how big and hairy (thank you Jonathan!), I will even rewrite the to-do a list a couple of times until I can see a path from where I am to where I want to be. Breathing slows, heart-beat returns to normal. And now I can focus on what needs doing instead of worrying about how I am doing.

  5. christinekgraf March 3, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Well said Jonathan, totally agree, Lists make me more effective too. But I have found that I use different lists for different content.

    1. Traditional paper list:
    remains on my desk at all times and usually contains work related tasks. Funny note on the side ==> priorities are mostly defined by different pen colors or arrows in different sizes.

    2. Notes on mobile device: contains grocery shopping lists and other content that I need on the run – also very useful as I can forward it as a message to my husband when he does the shopping 😉

    3. Brain Bubbles – I call this a “to-do” list as well because this one contains future ideas that are not “ripe” yet, and need to collect more information. But it’s not written down. For whatever reason still works though and saves information until it becomes a task 😉

    Anyone else with a funny “to-do-list” habit?

  6. Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter March 4, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    I have always kept a to-do list. I find them necessary. I don’t always keep them on a real piece of paper, but I often have one on my laptop. I love crossing items off when I am done with them. This gives me a lot of satisfaction!

  7. Mark van Heijningen March 5, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    I stopped writing down to-do’s on paper (in my case many different sorts of paper…) since I followed the promising ‘ take back your life’ training. Now I am leveraging the Tasks section of Outlook. Same psychological effect but still able to leverage modern technology and incorporating progress on the actiosn to realize my objectives. Works for me!

  8. Desiree Daniels March 5, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    I love the satisfaction of crossing a task off my physical to-do list! In college, my friends always thought it was odd that I didn’t prefer my iCal, Outlook, or Evernote apps to write my long lists of to-do’s…….but I completely relate to that psychological sense of relief that comes from crossing off a task. It may not make 100% sense to an avid virtual task creator, but to us old-fashioned doers- it’s the best way to get things done!

  9. christinedonato March 11, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    I agree completely. And as a 24 year old in a world of iPhone notes, calendars and reminders, I still carry a paperbound agenda book/mini calendar in my purse and cross off tasks for each day. The satisfaction of crossing off a completed item makes me feel very accomplished.

    I also find that it’s helpful to create a to-do list for the following day before I leave the office each night. When I arrive the next morning, I have my work load visible in front of me, and I’m able to go through each task one by one in order of importance.


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