Why your brain loves a list

Thought leadership
laptop and notebook
Do to-do lists actually work? Read the psychology behind this simple productivity hack and how to set your to-do lists up for success. 

Many of us write lists religiously, often writing a new list of tasks for every new day, to the point that we heavily rely on them. There are a few reasons why we feel the need to do this, not just the satisfying sense of accomplishment of crossing items off.

The Ziegarnik Effect is that we remember things that we need to get done, better than things we have already completed. It stems from observations made by Psychologist Zeigarnik who noticed that servers could only recall customers’ orders before they had been delivered. Once completed, the details disappeared from their memory. This supports the notion that crossing off items on a to-do list frees up our brain to focus on other things. The unconscious mind can’t plan how to finish tasks, but it knows something needs to be done, so it nags the conscious mind with reminders about the task. This built-in constant reminders can get stressful quickly and the solution is to simply make a plan.

  • Lists give us a plan. Making a to-do list is effortless, so it makes sense to make one for getting started on a new or difficult project that you can’t stop thinking about.
  • Lists can automatically reduce stress by getting the looming thoughts out of your mind and written down.
  • For when you’re feeling as though you’re not getting much done, they are proof of what you have achieved.
  • Jotting tasks down means we can’t forget there is something important that needs doing.

However it doesn’t mean you are committed to getting the work done, and often lists are a way to get a task out of your way and say I’ll do this later”. It’s important to keep your to-dos under control with these simple hacks:

Get into a routine.

If a task is constantly popping up on to-do lists, carve out an hour everyday to focus on it until it eventually becomes habitual and automatic.

Prioritise important projects.

Don’t spend time completing unimportant tasks just so you can cross more off your list. If you’re avoiding the harder work, think of ways to make it more fun, such as thinking about the end result, or listening to a podcast while you do it. You should also break foreboding tasks into friendlier chunks, with each big project having its own list. Don’t be afraid to deprioritise too, as it’s recommended you should focus on only three to five tasks a day, with the brain getting overwhelmed when it sees more.

Make more than one list and work in batches.

It defeats the purpose, if the list contains a mess of unrelated tasks and feels overwhelming. Work in batches of similar tasks so you can better focus on what you want to get done without getting distracted as your brain needs some time to adjust when you switch to a new task. Humans aren’t actually good at multitasking, so the more you can group together, the more productive you’ll be. 

Set deadlines

It’s important to know which of your tasks are most urgent so you don’t end up leaving anything till the last minute. These must be realistic as we have to account for taking time for ourselves.

Use software

Having a paper list can quickly get messy and is easy to lose. There are lots of clever apps and software options to get more organised. These help you to group items, set deadlines and mark as urgent or important.