The Science Behind More Effective To-Do Lists

The Science Behind More Effective To Do Lists

You made a to-do list, so why aren’t you checking off items with no problem? Every productivity expert tells you to create to-do lists, but that doesn’t explain how. A simple list may not be enough. However, experts have discovered how to create more effective to-do lists based on how the brain perceives the way tasks need to be done.

Understand How the Brain Works

Long before the to-do list was a productivity hack, people tended to focus more on what needed to be done than what they’d already accomplished. In fact, the focus on upcoming tasks can be so distracting that it prevents you from focusing on the current task.

The Science Behind More Effective To Do Lists Brain

Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist, calls this the Zeigarnik Effect. Zeigarnik noticed that waiters could easily remember a customer’s order until it was delivered, at which point their brains focused on the next pressing task versus what they had already done. The study also found that if a person was interrupted during a task, they remembered it more clearly. The reason is the natural desire to complete the task.

Another study by Wake Forest University professors E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister discovered that incomplete and upcoming tasks distract from the current task at hand. Your brain is so busy trying to keep up with what’s coming that it can’t focus fully on what you’re doing.

The two theorized that unfulfilled goals hindered progress on other goals. However, they found that when a person wrote down a plan to complete the unfulfilled goal, their focus returned to the current task, letting them increase their productivity.

Your Brain Can Only Handle So Much

David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art Of Stress-Free Productivity stresses that the brain can really only handle so much information at a time. So if you’re trying to remember the twenty tasks you need to get done, your attention is so divided that you’re not being your most productive self. In fact, you’re just stressing yourself out.

The Science Behind More Effective To Do Lists David Allen

Allen suggests writing everything down. This involves a file for things you need to do at a much later date, a current to-do list, and a file for each day of the current month along with an overview of each upcoming month for the next year. For this, we’ll just focus on the current to-do list.

Allen breaks down tasks into actions. When you open the file for the day, every task has an action or set of actions. You can choose to complete them or re-file for another time. Simply doing this satisfies your mind that everything’s under control. You can focus and check your to-do list to see what’s coming next once you’re finished with the current task.

Details Matter

There’s a common theme among most to-do list studies, including Allen’s book. A simple to-do list isn’t enough. Writing down shorthand isn’t enough for most people. Your brain still feels anxious and needs a plan in order to feel like everything’s under control.

The most effective to-do lists have details. For instance, if you have “mow yard” on your list, you might add details, such as the time you want to start, how long you’ll mow, and even how many breaks you’ll take. Suddenly, there’s nothing else for your brain to plan.

Even adding just a few simple details helps. This is especially true with your major tasks. For extremely simple tasks, such as “call Sara,” you don’t really need any other details except maybe a time.

Limit Your To-Do List

The Science Behind More Effective To Do Lists Limit

Effective to-do lists focus on the most important tasks. You don’t have to list every single thing you need to do.

For best results, have a primary and secondary list. The primary is where you list your most important tasks for the day along with your detailed action plan for accomplishing them. This can include several actionable steps for each item along with times.

Your secondary list includes all the smaller tasks you’d like to get done. Writing them down keeps your brain free to stay focused on the important tasks and the actionable steps from your primary list keep you focused on each individual task, one at a time.

Put Tasks in Order

A chaotic to-do list won’t help. Your number one task is to create an orderly task list. List your tasks in order of importance and time. If you don’t have to worry about doing tasks at a set time, such as doing post-meeting notes between 1 PM and 2 PM, focus solely on importance.

Place your hardest and most important tasks first. You could also take the approach of putting the tasks you procrastinate on first. Doing this eases anxiety with every task you accomplish, increasing productivity as you go.

Write It Down

Whether you use a piece of paper or something digital, write down your to-do list. Trying to remember it won’t help. Effective to-do lists are something that are out of your mind and in an easily accessible place, such as your computer, phone, or notepad.

The Science Behind More Effective To Do Lists Write

You can also use reminder apps to help with time-sensitive tasks. Write down the time on your to-do list, too, but use the app to ensure you don’t get distracted.

Effective to-do lists will change the way you work. Spending a little extra time on yours could be the productivity hack you’ve been searching for all along.

Crystal Crowder

Crystal's spent over 15 years writing about technology, productivity, and a little of everything else. She's always trying out new ways to beat procrastination and distractions to stay more productive and hopefully work fewer hours.