The Power of the To-Do List

to do list graphic

to do list graphic

While browsing my Twitter feed today, I came across a fascinating article from the BBC website, entitled "The Psychology of the To-Do List." [Clicking the link will open the referenced article in a new window for your reading pleasure.]

I have to admit, when I first saw the article title my first thought was "great, another piece extolling the virtues of list making." Having procrastinated on writing out a to-do list for the past hour, reading another article seemed like a great way to continue on that trend. And, of course, I could pat myself on the back for at least trying to motivate myself to write said list.

To my surprise, the content of the article was not quite what I expected. I was fascinated to learn that some really interesting and thought-provoking research has been occurring that sheds some light onto what specifically works about making to-do lists.

In researching a cognitive psychology principle called the Zeigarnik Effect, a team of researchers at Florida State University found that individuals who leave a task incomplete are hampered in their ability to be productive on future tasks, likely because that unfinished task takes up a significant amount of working memory. However, creating a plan for finishing that task can be just as effective as actually completing it for freeing up mental resources (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

The author of the BBC article spent a bit of time explaining and promoting a specific organizational system laid out by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. I have to admit - that particular organizational system sounds a bit exhausting to implement. For those who can and do implement it, the benefits sound tremendous. For those who find it overwhelming, the basic principle of breaking down lists into very small action items would be a very helpful place to start.

So, as you think about your life goals today, consider - what is one small action you could take RIGHT NOW to advance that goal even a small amount, even if that action is as small as picking up a pen to write down a few first steps.