The Psychology of the To-Do List

We love to-do lists. They keep us organized and motivated. At the same time, we hate to-do lists. They stress us out and can be a bit scary at times. Why do we have this love-hate relationship with to-do lists?

The Science Behind The To-Do List

There’s a certain satisfaction in crossing off a task in your daily to-do list. That rewarding jolt of dopamine your brain gets is what pushes you to finish each item on your list. It’s also addictive enough that you want to get the same hit everyday, which is why we keep making lists.

On the flip side, to-do lists can also feel like a chore. Ever had that one item on your to-do list that never seems to get done? It’s like getting an annoying itch that you just can’t reach. This nagging feeling is the result of the Zeigarnik effect.

The reason your brain keeps nagging you is because that certain “to-do” has something missing. It might be incomplete, vague or just plain undoable in its current state. The unconscious part of your brain keeps nudging the conscious part to make that task whole. Until you do, you’ll continue to get stressed because of that undone task.

Making To-Do Lists Work For You

Armed with what we know about the psychology behind to-do lists, how can we use this knowledge to get things done? Well for one thing, we can use a system, aptly named Getting Things Done by David Allen. Instead of making a monstrously huge to-do list, you break that beast apart into shorter, daily to-do lists and more actionable tasks.

Key Takeaway

This way, you avoid the nagging feeling brought about by the Zeigarnik effect by making each work item specific and doable. This has the added effect of giving you that small pleasant motivational boost when you check off an item. The more items you check off during the day, the closer you are to a finished list, and the more satisfied you feel while working.

Here’s the one thing you should do next when you get back to work: make your to-do list doable. You can accomplish this by:

  • converting bigger tasks into smaller ones. Instead of “clean office”, make it “file papers alphabetically” and “take out trash”.
  • using specific action-oriented verbs. Instead of “do”, use “write”, “call”, etc.
  • keeping the list short, something you can complete in one day.

And yes, you should probably stop using your inbox as a to-do list.