To do, or not to do

Why the traditional to-do list is possibly doing you more harm than good

We are all familiar with the concept of a to-do list. We are taught from a very early age that the best way to get things done is to make a list and tick tasks off as we complete them. The idea of a to-do list is comforting, it’s tangible and having one makes us feel like we know where we are in life.

But there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that your to-do list may actually be damaging, not only to your productivity, but also to your mental and physical health. Consider the times in your life when you have felt stressed out, with a lot on your plate and an overfull to-do list – how were you sleeping? The stress and anxiety caused by having an overwhelming number of incomplete tasks lurking in the back of your mind can have a detrimental impact on your overall wellbeing.

The Zeigarnik Effect

The human brain is more likely to dwell on incomplete or interrupted tasks than complete ones. This phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik effect, after the psychologist who first studied it in 1927. There have been two main theories posited for how the effect works: the first argues that it is your subconscious mind keeping track of your mental to-do list, working to make sure it is accomplished; the second argues that it is the subconscious mind asking the conscious mind for help, like a child tugging on a sleeve, your subconscious mind is giving you nagging reminders to complete what it perceives to be ‘unfinished business’.

In evolution, nothing is an accident and so there are of course instances where the Zeigarnik effect is an advantage; in the original study, participants were shown to be better able to remember the subject of an interrupted study session than a completed one. But whilst this may be positive if you are attempting to utilise the effect to effectively plan your study schedule for an exam, if you are trying to manage your day-to-day professional life, it becomes more problematic. It’s very difficult to concentrate on the task at hand if your brain keeps sending you reminders of all the tasks you haven’t done yet.

Making Plans

The solution, it transpires, may lie in how you’re writing your to-do list. In 2011, Masicampo and Baumeister published a study entitled ‘Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals’. Their findings clearly showed that the act of making a list of objectives, with a clear plan for how those objectives would be achieved, has an effect on the brain that is akin to pressing a reset button. Study subjects who had made a clear plan showed significantly less tendency to return to those thoughts later on.

Anders Thomsen, former McKinsey consultant and CEO of no-more – a specialist provider of on-demand business services based in Copenhagen – says “I advise all of my team against keeping a to-do list, as there is a growing body of evidence which shows that they can actually interrupt your thought processes, thereby disrupting productivity. Instead, we have a weekly kick-off session on a Monday morning, where each department outlines their plans and goals for the coming week. I’ve found this to be a much more effective way to work, and my team agree with me.”

Decisions, decisions

The human brain has a finite amount of decision-making power each day; the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making is called decision fatigue. When your to-do list contains vague items such as ‘do sales strategy’ or ‘find new customer leads’, your brain will naturally try to skip them, as they require more decision-making capacity. How many times have you looked at your list, skipped over all the things that seemed too overwhelming and ended up doing something that was easy, but offered little value? You’re not alone.

One way to ensure that a task languishes indefinitely on your to-do list is to make it open-ended. When a task has a deadline attached to it, whether that deadline is self-imposed or otherwise, it automatically becomes more significant to your subconscious, making it more difficult to skip. The main difference between a traditional to-do list and a well-executed objectives plan is that those vague to-do items are expanded into a list of tangible actions, with goals and deadlines attached to them.

“The main thing with the service that no-more provides is that it is designed to improve productivity.” Thomsen explains, “the idea is that instead of coming into work and spending your time avoiding the elephant in the room by ticking the easy win, low return items off an overfull to-do list, you send those small but essential tasks to our specialists and spend your time on something more important that requires your full focus and expertise.”

Eat your frogs

The evidence seems clear: in order to work smarter, we need to change the way we plan our time. This means changing the way we write our to-do lists, especially when we consider that 41% of to-do list items never get ticked off, while only 15% of items on a ‘done’ list even started out life as a to-do item, representing a startling disparity between what we perceive to be the required tasks and what actions are actually required to achieve an objective or goal.

It all comes back to your ability to prioritize and to write effective plans. Mark Twain once said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Of course, as we all know, that frog is often the big, vague to-do item that you’ve been skipping over for a few days now and is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. But if you break it down into its component parts and make a plan for how and when you will do each of those tasks, that frog begins to look a whole lot more palatable.

Who knows – you might even have room for a second helping.

Emily Bolton is a writer and Marketing Manager for No-More, a Denmark-based company providing specialized business support on demand. By enabling individuals to outsource cumbersome office tasks like PowerPoint and Desk Research, NoMore is making it easier for the world’s businesses to focus on what they do best

Image: Pexels

How to stay productive when facing a deadline

Most of us work pretty hard to ensure an even schedule throughout the working week: five or more days of calm, measured – if industrious – productivity. Yet most people will also recognize the simple truth that, from time to time, work tends to get bunched up together. Whether it’s a fast-approaching deadline, a backlog of tasks, or an upturn in the market, everyone has to face up to striving onwards in the face of fatigue every once in a while.

It’s a common characteristic of the way we work, so it makes sense to be prepared for these tiring periods in advance. That way, when it’s two hours past your normal leaving time and there’s still no sign of getting home for the evening, you’ll be able to power through without producing substandard work. And the best way you can maintain your energy over days like this is to make sure you’re looking out for yourself from minute one.

This is achieved by creating a prioritized schedule. List down each task and sub-task that you need to complete, and figure out an order than enables you to get the most urgent and most difficult stuff done first – before your brain starts to slow down! Beginning with smaller tasks (if they happen to be important ones) can also be useful if you are a natural procrastinator: that way, the first leap is much easier to take.

Your schedule should allow for regular breaks. It can be a tough discipline, on a busy day, to force yourself to rest. That’s why it is very helpful to use an app such as Break Timer to remind you when each hour comes around. Taking even a 30 second break can improve your productivity by 13% – so it is worth doing, even if your logical mind reckons that working straight through will get more done.

These breaks should not be seen as an opportunity to catch up with your online life. Emails are a legitimate part of work, but they can take over the rest of your day if you allow them. Instead, mark a specific part of your schedule for dealing with messages, switch your notifications off, and keep your phone hidden from view as even the sight of this temptation can be distracting.

Instead, consider using your break to do some stretches. Stretching can boost the flow of oxygen to your brain, and keep your limbs supple – ideal when you’re working a long, mind- and derriere-numbing day at the office. If you’re short of room, there are plenty of exercises you can do without leaving your desk. A good one is to lean forward and pull each of your legs up and back towards your chest for around 30 seconds at a time.

If coffee is your fuel, you might be interested to hear about Dave Asprey’s so-called ‘bulletproof coffee’. The self-styled biohacker reckons that adding two tablespoons of unsalted butter to your cup of Joe can help to achieve mental clarity when you’re up against it. At the very least, it provides a curious alternative on a long day at work when the kettle is your only friend!

If that sounds a bit hardcore, you can at least use your coffee break as an excuse for a change of scene. Instead of returning to your trusty kettle, try moving your operation to a nearby coffee shop for an hour or so. A fresh environment can improve your creativity and concentration: it could be just what you need when your willpower is diminishing.

Drink nothing but coffee all day, however, and you’ll soon find yourself dehydrated and underperforming. If coffee is a useful tool, plain old water is a vital ingredient for success. Allow yourself to dehydrate, and you’ll feel a lot more tired a lot more quickly. Keep track of how much water you’re drinking all day long, and that way you can pre-empt disaster by topping yourself up before you start to get low.

There are plenty of less intuitive tricks you can try to help keep your energy up when you’ve been at it all day. Working while standing up can put you in a better mood and boost your brain power, according to experts. Listening to new music can keep your environment feeling fresh and your brain active – just don’t play it too loud! And working near a window can help you absorb daylight and fresh air, which should keep you feeling more awake than being sequestered away in a dusky corner.

Finally, don’t neglect the power of peppermint. A splash of this essential oil on your wrists, or kept open on your desk, can be great for your levels of awareness. And it’s probably a heck of a lot healthier than coffee and butter!

So keep these tips in mind ahead of your next deadline push or all-nighter. If you work together with your mind and your body, it is amazing what you can achieve. These tips have been gathered into a handy new infographic so you can refer back to them whenever you need that extra boost – because sometimes, our schedule is boss and we have to find a way to get things done.

G. John Cole is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans.

Image: Pexels