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

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