People love creating to-do lists. In the moment, it makes us feel in control and on top of our tasks. However, when approached the wrong way, to-do lists can quickly slide from productivity boosters to guilt inducers. Let’s explore the science behind why we love creating lists, the ways in which lists go off the rails, and how we can tackle our to-do’s more efficiently.
Why We Love Creating To-Do Lists
Ever wonder why creating a to-do list and then checking items off that list feels so good? We can blame it on dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Dopamine, while helping to regulate attention, learning, movement, and emotional responses, also plays a significant role in the brain's reward system. The release of dopamine contributes to the feelings of pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction we feel when we take action and achieve a goal.
Studies have shown that this process serves as a point of motivation, creating a cognitive loop that leads to duplicating the behavior (in this case, checking items off our to-do list) in order to feel continued sensations of pleasure and accomplishment. The addiction to this feeling is so strong that many of us even add items to our list that we’ve already completed, just so we can feel that dopamine hit as we check the item off the list.
While dopamine and its resulting effects on motivation can be a powerful success tool, it can also be our kryptonite. Long lists that invite us to repeatedly check off to-dos can lead to a steady state of busy-ness rather than productivity, distracting us from the bigger goals and opportunities that deserve our efforts and actions.
How To-Do Lists Go So Terribly Wrong
By their nature, to-do lists are often long checklists with no specific timetable attached, and which tend to be far longer than is reasonable.
Think about how many times you’ve created a to-do list of all the things you wanted to tackle in a day, only to feel defeated when the sun went down because so many items were left unchecked. Truth be told, you probably got more done than you gave yourself credit for, but when the list is excessively long, it makes your “completed” items look comparatively small.
This habit of setting ourselves up for failure by putting more on our list than time will reasonably allow is a common struggle known as the planning fallacy. As research on the subject has revealed, people often carry an optimistic view regarding how much they can complete within a given timeframe, significantly underestimating how long given tasks take to complete.
In addition, there is a repeated pattern associated with failing to consider past experiences - and how long they took - when evaluating current activities and actions. In other words, even though we’ve been the repeated victim of long, disorganized to-do lists that take far longer to execute than planned, we fail to change our methodology going forward.
To-do lists are like Gremlins. If you don’t keep control and establish some rules, they’ll multiply uncontrollably. So let’s establish some rules.
10 Success Tips to Make Your To-Do Lists Work For You
1. Evaluate and Delegate. Some to-do’s, both personal and professional, may not belong on your list at all. If you find you’ve moved the same item from day-to-day and list-to-list, that’s an example of something to evaluate and delegate. To-dos should be serving your bigger goals, not just sucking up your time.
2. Break It Down. "Find a speaker for fall retreat” is not a good to-do because it’s too broad and general. “Identify 5 candidates and review their websites and social media channels” is a better, more concrete task. By breaking to-do’s down into their smallest, most actionable parts, you’ll be able to create more meaningful to-do lists that consistently move you toward your larger goals.
3. Batch Related Tasks. Many of our to-dos can be categorized so look for repeated themes and batch those tasks together. As an example, if you have multiple phone calls to make, a few errands to run, and a handful of reports to review, then treat each of those as categories and perform related tasks in a single time block.
4. Time Block To-Dos. A list of to-dos without a timeframe attached will get you in trouble every time. That’s how the planning fallacy gets its grip on us. Evaluate your action items and how long each one will take, then block out time in your agenda to complete each one.
5. Separate the Present From the Future. Often to-do lists get overwhelmingly long because present and future items get conflated. Divide present-day tasks from “someday” items by keeping a separate list for future consideration. As examples: Do you plan on launching a podcast… someday? Or revising your corporate branding initiatives… someday? If it’s not a now or near-term to-do, move it off your list.
6. Leverage Your Power Hours. Don’t schedule mindless tasks during your optimal work hours. If you have more energy in the morning, then reserve that time for working on cognitively-demanding activities that are driving you closer to your goals.
7. Get Comfortable Saying ‘No’. Sometimes our to-do lists become bogged down by obligations we actually had a choice on, such as agreeing to do something for or with a friend or neighbor. Learning to embrace the power of a positive ‘No’ will help you make progress on the tasks that are worthy of a resounding yes.
8. Create systems for repetitive to-dos. A great way to reduce your to-do list is to create systems and automate as many repetitive tasks as possible. While it’s natural to automate business tasks, a great time-saver is to systemize personal tasks as well, such as putting pet food on auto-ship from Chewy.com or ordering groceries online for curbside pick-up.
9. Reflect and Adjust. Look at your agenda each night and reflect on whether it was filled with busy tasks or productive action items. If it’s the former, go back to #1 and determine what you can delegate. A great question to ask yourself is, “Are my daily activities taking me closer to - or further away - from my goals?”.
10. Celebrate small wins. To-do lists should be a tool to serve your biggest priorities and most audacious goals. When you complete to-dos that are intentionally designed to move you toward your goals, take time to celebrate. Small wins over time turn into big victories.
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