It’s a new year and after a well-deserved break you’re amped and rearing to go. You’ve got your resolutions, you’ve got your sparkly new organiser, and you’ve got your ‘to-do’ list. ‘To-do’ lists are often started with the best intentions, but studies show that very few people actually use them as they’re intended to – they get ignored, lost, or become overwhelming and demotivating.
Ticking the tasks
If your own history of uncompleted lists isn’t proof enough, here are some stats from productivity app iDoneThis to prove it:
- 41% of items on the to-do list were never completed
- 50% of listed tasks completed were done that day
- 18% of listed items were completed within an hour of being added
- 10% of listed tasks were completed within a minute of being added
- 15% of completed tasks started as a ‘to-do’ item.
What this proves is that to-do lists are pretty poor reflections of what many people actually get done on a given day, and that half the tasks listed are completed quickly enough that a list wasn’t needed for remembering in the first place.
The psychology behind list-making
So why do we insist on making lists? It turns out there’s a psychological motivation called the Zeigarnik effect, coined by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who observed that people tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks far better than completed ones. This is why some people have trouble falling asleep at night because of all the things they need to get done buzzing around their heads.
This is where the to-do list comes in handy (but not ideal for productivity): the list acts as a brain dump, allowing the mind to quieten down all the undone tasks. The down side is that making a list asks the brain to make a plan to get things done instead of knuckling down and getting them done. Here’s the twister: The act of writing effectively clears the task as being done.
Making the most of your to-do list
This is not to say that to-do lists should be scrapped, rather it should be put to better use: to-do lists should act as a way to map out your tasks, order of work and level of priority rather than a mnemonic aid. Through modifying your list in this way, not only will your mind be quieter, but you’ll maximise its benefit which ultimately translates to increased productivity.