The Science of Writing A To-Do List
It may seem like a simple thing to incorporate into your day, however a to-do list is a powerful tool to not only boost productivity but also reduce any associated fatigue, stress or overwhelm.
Humans haven’t always lived the way that we do now, harried and hustling every day of our forbidding existence. Psychologists have noted that to-do lists help reduce the anxiety of a stressful life by giving us structure, plans and concrete evidence of our day-to-day achievements. They show us what we have done, and allow us to look forward to what we can do. That’s why it feels so good to cross something off a list. It might be something as small as sending an email or something as enormous as filing your tax return, but without seeing it removed from the list of tasks weighing down on you, it can be hard to visualise your achievement.*
It’s been recorded that we perform better when we have written a task down, according to a study conducted at the Dominican University in California on 270 participants, you are 42% more likely to achieve something when you write it down!
The evidence suggests that writing a to-do list and ultimately planning out your activities reduces the stress on the brain. Most studies refer back to the Zeigarnik Effect, coined by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik through a study in the 1920’s. The study observed waiters and how they could only remember the details of orders before they had served them and once served (or the task was completed) the details disappeared from their memory - essentially concluding that when we finish a task our brains can let go of that task to move on to the next , but if that task is interrupted or unfinished we keep that in our mind to be readily recalled. Now hypothetically make that task into x10 unfinished or interrupted tasks in our mind with no structure to get through them and you can easily see the power of a to-do list.
More recently, Professors Baumeister and Masicampo from University of Florida verified the Zeigarnik Effect by showing that people performed worse on a brainstorming task when they were unable to finish & cross off a warm up activity from their mental to-do list. However, if the researchers allowed people to make concrete plans on how to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the brainstorming task improved. The written action plan or to-do list for the warm-up activity removed the distraction of the unfinished task to then work on the brainstorming task assigned.
The key to a to-do list is writing everything down and sorting it into a plan of action, helping to release the burden on the brain of mentally holding a list of all the things and unfinished tasks we need to do. A to-do list is a beneficial tool for anyone and everyone, from creatives to business professionals all the way to a personal life admin list. It’s a system with simplicity.
So how do we write a to-do list? Our founder Beck Wadworth breaks it down in 4 easy steps.
1. Keep It Simple
One of the easiest ways I organise my life daily is by writing a big to-do list every evening for the following day.
For me I prefer to write everything down I need to remember. However if to-do lists are new for you, keep it simple. A to-do list is not there to make you feel overwhelmed and disappointed if you don't achieve everything. A to-do list is there to help with time management, prioritising your day / workload and to ultimately guarantee you a productive day.
First thing's first, write down the top THREE tasks you need to achieve. These tasks should be things that need your focus & attention. They could be things that will help move your business forward, or deadlines you need to meet for a client. No matter what they are, write them down & make sure these are the three things you focus on in the AM when your attention span is high and you are feeling fresh & motivated. These are called your MIT's or 'Most Important Tasks'.
If you feel comfortable adding other tasks to your to-do list, leave a gap and continue writing other 'minor' tasks, meetings or reminders you have for the day.
2. Create A Code
It's important to segment your to-do list / day into sections. This will help you manage your time, prioritise your workload and make the day a lot more achievable and stress-free. As I said before - you do not need to achieve EVERYTHING on this list. It's there for you to prioritise your workload & your day. Life is fast paced, and things can change & pop up - remain flexible but know what you NEED to achieve on your to-do list that day, and what you WANT to achieve if you have no interruptions or delays. There is a big difference between need and want!
Your code can be unique to you. Here are some examples below:
- Pink: Top 3 Priorities - Urgent
- Green: AM - Ideal Morning Tasks
- Blue: PM - Ideal Afternoon Tasks
- Yellow: Flexible - can be moved onto another day if need be
With the colour coding, a simple tick next to the item or box can be implemented when you complete a task.
Personally I'm a fan of symbols. See below an example of how I organise & code my to do-list daily. And also the key I work to.
Once you have worked out your coding system. Go through your to-do list and allocate each item a 'code'. This will help you prioritise your day. One common mistake people often make is avoiding tackling those big tasks, the MITs . The best way to look at big tasks is to break them down into smaller achievable projects.
When your to-do list is complete, read through it all and mentally prepare for the day ahead. Next, switch off and relax for the evening, knowing you are organised and ahead of the game!
4. One Task At A Time
In the morning when you are focused and fresh, start your day and follow your to-do list. Concentrate on one task at a time where possible, and enjoy the satisfaction of ticking of at least your x3 priorities or MIT's.
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*Written by Hannah Rose Yee for AOL in The one to-do list trick you should be trying this month.