Blue Line

To do list:

September 24, 2013  By Dorothy Cotton

1426 words – MR

HEAD: To do list:
SUB: 1. Make a to do list

This has been one hell of a busy fall (the season, I mean). Every year, I say I am going to cut back on the number of things I am doing – and every year…not so much. By November, I always feel like I am going to drop in my tracks.

Maybe I get too much summer sun, which melts my brain so I can’t think rationally, since the only words that come to mind in September are “Sure! I’d love to!” Or maybe it’s just bad luck and a bunch of things all come up at once (although the fact this happens every year makes me think it’s not an accident).


Part of the problem is that I usually succeed at doing all the things I am supposed to be doing – which leads to a complete lack of insight the next year when the vicious cycle starts all over.

People often ask, “How do you manage to do so many things?” The answer has something to do with a combination of the aforementioned lack of insight combined with an inability to sleep and generally bad judgment. Those are the causes but the mechanism I use to keep on top of my way-too-many-activities is simpler: I keep to-do lists.

The to-do list is as vital as food, drink, sex and sauvignon blanc in maintaining a normal and fulfilling existence. I believe the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow included it in his well known hierarchy of human needs. One can certainly not reach any level of self actualization without having an intimate acquaintance with the to-do list.

One of the reasons they tend to be effective is because the human brain is highly fallible. It tends to forget stuff. If you’re busy, you might simply forget to do things. The cognitive ability that we call ‘working memory” can generally only hold about seven items at a time; after that, things get dropped. If you have more than seven things on your list, write them down.

The brain is very clever about how and what it chooses to forget. For example, we are all well aware of how much easier it is to forget to do something we really don’t want to do – as opposed to something that is fun and rewarding.

The brain also tends to mix up memories. One might interfere with another so that they all blur together. Maybe you always dump your car keys on the ledge in the front hall when you get home from work. Or maybe you ALMOST always dump your keys there. How many times have you been absolutely positive that you left your car keys on the ledge in the front hall, only to find them in your coat pocket? How about talking to someone you were at a meeting with and having entirely different recollections of what happened? Just because you are absolutely sure something happened does not mean it really did.

‘Nuf said about the reliability of your memory. The simplest function of a to-do list is as a simple reminder.
However, curious as it may seem, remembering to do stuff and not doing it may be worse that forgetting it altogether. When the brain does remember things, it is selective. For example, people are far more likely to remember their failures than their successes – and more apt to remember the things they didn’t complete than the thing they did, especially if they have no plans to finish the uncompleted stuff.

People in one study were told to complete a warm up task but then given another task before they could finish. They kept worrying about the unfinished task, which interfered with doing the new task. However if they were allowed to develop a plan for completing the warm up task, it stopped getting in the way of the new task. They did not actually complete the warm-up task – they just had a plan to complete it. That was good enough! There is actually a name for this (who knew!?) – it’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.

So you not only need to write stuff down – you need to have a plan.

It almost seems silly to talk about something as basic as the to-do list but it really is the foundation of any personal organization strategy. There are whole books on how to construct the definitive to-do list. You can even find a history in John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister’s book <Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength>. Its third chapter is titled “A brief history of the to-do list, from God to Drew Carey.”

I think almost everyone keeps to-do lists of some sort but there is a psychology to lists. Just any old list will not do. The wrong one can slow you down, makes things look hopeless and discourage you from soldiering on. The right list employs many basic psychological principles that motivate and help you become inspired. It can aid in getting MORE done, whereas the wrong list can grind you to a halt. Here is a wrong list:

  1. Answer emails
  2. Write the great Canadian Novel
  3. Finish/close all files
  4. Lose weight
  5. Exercise

This list contains only five items but I am depressed just reading it. Each item will take a TON of work – and most are probably not achievable at all. The list does not even provide a hint as to how you might get any of this done. Why bother even trying? If you had such a list and a half hour of free time to get started, what would you do? You can’t possibly do any of those items. I’d go for coffee.

What if your list read:

  1. Reply to email from Fred
  2. Reply to email from Mary
  3. Reply to email to John
  4. Send email to The Boss
  5. Think of an idea for a novel
  6. Finish the blue file
  7. Make an outline for the red file
  8. Have yogurt for brekky
  9. Walk up the stairs at the office
  10. Brush teeth

What’s that you say? You already brushed your teeth? Wahoo – one thing you can already cross off. I always include several things that I have either already done – or that only take a few seconds. It makes me feel like I am making progress. I also never include huge tasks, as that tends to overwhelm me. If I wanted to write the Great Canadian Novel, my list would consist of:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Identify one main character
  3. Identify another less major character
  4. Decide where it is going to take place
  5. Buy new cartridge for printer

… and so forth. Now THESE are things I can do!

The basics of making lists – and getting anything done, really – are all the same:

  1. Provide ample opportunity for positive reinforcement
  2. Break down all large tasks into small steps
  3. Set clear priorities and stick with them
  4. Be mindful – think about what you are doing each moment of the day and reflect on how you’re spending your time.
  5. Give and receive feedback at every possible step
  6. Review and revise as necessary
  7. Be accountable (that means you have to check off things on your list)
  8. Remember that people are bad at remembering
  9. Plan for the future.

You can get carried away with to-do lists, assigning times and priorities to your tasks. This is a good idea –as is breaking down important tasks. It’s easy to fritter away your time doing a gazillion five minute tasks because you only have five minute time slots available. The trouble is, at the end of the day, you might have gotten a gazillion trivial jobs done and never even started on the important stuff.

Instead divide the important stuff into five minute chunks. You can also have short term/long term/work/home lists. (If you play your card right, you can spend the whole day making lists and not have to work at all.)

It is Monday morning as I write this – always the worst time for feeling overwhelmed because the whole week looms in from of me. I think I will work on this week’s to-do list. The good news is that when it’s done, I can cross “make this week’s to-do list” off my to-do list. I am feeling better already.

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