Why list making works

Why list making works

We all know the feeling. You are in a deep sleep, and suddenly your eyes snap open and you are wide-awake - you realize how much you have to do the next day. You scramble out of bed to find a piece of paper and a pen to make a list of everything you need to do. Then, you find yourself feeling peaceful again and you fall back asleep knowing your list will remember it for you.

 Why do we make lists?

Just like a computer, our brains begin to “freeze” when we try to open too many applications at the same time. In his book "The Organized Mind," neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that most people can only hold about four separate pieces of information in their minds at one time. Like a juggler, we try to keep all of these pieces of information up in the air, but if we add too many items on our mental to-do list, inevitably we will forget something.

How to make it work for you

We often make to-do lists and feel better that we have organized our tasks, but sometimes we still aren’t able to complete everything we set out to do.

Suggestions to make your to-do list more effective:

  • Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, in “The Science of Success,” recommends making to-do lists in this format:  

    • If (or when) _____________ occurs, then I will _____________. For example, “If it is Tuesday morning, then I will complete the report.”

  • Prioritize: Identify which items on your to-do list have deadlines, are time sensitive or more urgent, and which items can be done later.

  • Assign deadlines to your list.

  • Break down big tasks into smaller goals. For example, instead of “complete report,” you might say “begin brainstorming ideas,” or “begin outline of report.”

Make a “got it done” list

One drawback of to-do lists is that we are always focusing on what we have to do, and we don’t take the time to congratulate ourselves for our successes. Make a "got it done” list so you can celebrate achievements and allow yourself to take the time to relax and revel in your successes!

Making effective to-do lists can certainly help with productivity and time management, but it is important to step out of the to-do list at times to care for ourselves so that we can continue to be efficient. Our lives are made up of more than the items we need from the grocery store or the report we have to write at work, so it is also important to consider how we focus on all aspects of life that bring us joy.