The Science Behind To-Do Lists

Justin Sayarath | Nov 26, 2018
Woman sitting at desk writing a list in notepad

The top item on your to-do list should be making a to-do list. Let’s talk about why they’re so effective, and how they can help you.

It may seem antiquated in 2018, but making a good old-fashioned to-do list is still one of the easiest and best things you can do to boost your productivity. It's no coincidence that many of the world’s most successful individuals use to-do lists, from Richard Branson to Warren Buffett.

Sure, to-do lists obviously offer you some structure and help you manage your busy day, although many people say they prefer schedules or productivity apps or other alternatives.

But here’s a terrible secret: Everyone has a to-do list.

That’s just a fact about the world; we all have things that we need to get done. The only difference is, some people write down their to-do lists, while others never formalize the list but keep replaying parts of it in their head. And this can take up valuable processing power, or even cause anxiety by having your thoughts run in circles. If you imagine your brain as a powerful computer (which it basically is), having 5 “Do this thing” programs open at once eats up a lot of memory and will slow down other programs.

But downloading those thoughts to a physical list will let you clear space on your mental hard drive. A recent Wake Forest University study showed that when subjects wrote down their plans to complete tasks, even if the tasks remained incomplete, the associated anxiety of unfilled goals was reduced. In other words, the mere act of writing down a plan for dealing with them will free up your brain space from obsessing over incomplete tasks.

Now, you may have tried to-do lists before and given up on them—especially if it seemed like a pointless exercise in listing a bunch of stuff and never getting half of it done. But there are some secrets for making a list that you will actually complete:

  • Break Down Concepts Into Actionable Items. David Allen, the author of “Getting Things Done,” says that the most common mistake people make with To-Do lists is listing ambiguous unclear thoughts. Putting something like “Dinner Party” on your to-do list won’t free your mind from planning anxiety. Better to use discrete tasks like “Buy vegetables” and “Call Susan to confirm date.” Clear next actions will be easier to complete and provide more positive engagement.
  • Keep Your List Brief. Another common mistake people make with to-do lists is to list everything you want to get done. You might think that’s the whole point of a To-Do List, but if you fill your list with 30 things you wanted to do today like “write thank-you note” and “go for a jog,” you’re likely to end your day with half a list of incomplete tasks—some of which might have been more important. Keep your to-do lists short by focusing on a half-dozen important items or so, and you’re likely to meet with success.
  • Remember Your Life’s Purpose. This may seem like heady advice for a simple to-do list. But we often conflate urgency with importance, and if your list is filled with things which are urgent but not meaningful, you may be pushing aside what’s really important to you. To-Do lists can be counter-productive if they do not prioritize tasks which forward your main life goals.

Following these three tips will help ensure that your lists have a manageable number of tasks which you can actually accomplish—and that the tasks you accomplish will be worthwhile. Now that’s something worth doing.