The Importance of a To-Do List

I’ve GOT to remember that, you tell yourself.  You feel like you have a thousand things swimming around in your head and you feel like you are grasping at straws trying to remember everything even though you know they are doomed to slip away.  If this sounds familiar, you know the importance of a to-do list.

As soon as you write down everything that’s scrambling around in your brain, you feel a sense of relief.  Yes, you still have to do everything, but the psychology of lists leads your brain to stop stressing about remembering everything and turn on your actual thinking mode so that you can prioritize and sort out what important enough to do now, and what can wait.  

How exactly does it do that? Let’s find out! 

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Psychology of a To-Do List

Why does writing out a to-do list bring such a sense of relief?  Psychologist and author David Cohen (The Guardian) attributes it to 3 reasons: 

  • They dampen anxiety about life’s chaos and disorder
  • Give a structured plan we can stick to
  • Proof of what we have achieved in a given time frame
  • crossing off items gives a sense of accomplishment

If nothing else, these 4 reasons alone highlight the importance of a to-do list.

Studies About the Psychology of a To-Do List

There are two studies that stand out when it comes to the psychology of a to-do list and gives us insight on how and why they work.  

“What was my order again?” aka Zeigarnik Effect  

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed one day that servers at a restaurant remembered people’s orders better that had not yet gotten their food.  Once the order was completed, they seemed to forget who ordered what.  

Intrigued, she conducted a study on memory in the 1920s and found that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than those that have been completed successfully.  This is now termed the “Zeigarnik Effect” in her honor.  (I wonder if she quizzed her servers on what her order had been after the meal?  I hope she tipped them extra if she did.)  

“What’s the Plan, Man?”  – aka Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals

Importance of a to do list pin

Another study done in 2011 by two professors at Florida State University looked at how making plans towards achieving goals can alleviate anxiety about them. For the study, they recruited 73 of the usual guinea pigs – undergrads- and put them through 5 studies.   They finally concluded that simply writing tasks down makes you more effective. 

To share a few quotes from the study,

 “Our work therefore revealed how planning for the future can positively impact goal management.” -E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister

“By committing to specific plans of action, people can facilitate goal attainment, and, at the same time, limited cognitive resources can be better regulated to serve their multiple pursuits.” -E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister

In other words – most of us have more than one goal going on at a time.  Writing down a plan helps you to not only achieve your goal but also to direct your thoughts towards other things that are more immediate.   

The Importance of a to-do list

With that psychology of a to-do list behind us, let’s take a look at the importance of a to-do list.  When you make a to-do list, It helps you: 

  • Acknowledge the tasks
  • Helps you prioritize
  • Helps block out distractions and helps focus your mind on one thing
  • Relieves anxiety (because you don’t have to remember them) 
  • Give order to unrelated tasks
  • Serves as a record of what you have accomplished in a given time frame
  • Can free up brainpower to make us more creative
  • Helps us to break down large tasks into smaller chunks

Here’s one of the fantastic things about a to-do list, according to medium.com,  writing it down is more important than doing all of the tasks.  

 Often times, I do not finish everything on my to-do list.  It’s not always about doing more, it’s about setting priorities and deciding where your time is best spent on any given day.  Another part of the importance of a to-do list is that having it written out gives me a record at the end of a long day when I ask myself “What DID I do today?”   

The Importance of a To-Do List – Relieving Anxiety

Sometimes when I am super stressed and feeling anxious, it feels like I have a milion things rattling around in my brain. I’m so scared that I’ll forget one and it will cause me to stress and then my mind starts overthinking.  Before I know it, I’m in a whole scenario of “What if I forget so-and-so and all these bad things hapen??”  

When I write everything down in a list, I no longer have that stress of what if I forget something.  I don’t have to remember it all because I have it on the piece of paper in front of me. (Sometimes it’s not even a to-do list.  It can be any type of list of things that I’m trying to remember.)   

Writing it all down helps me to let it go and to see which things really are important and which ones just seem like they are.  

Related Posts

The 5 Minute Productivity Journal

Another way to manage your to-do list is a productivity journal. Often I’m very busy in the morning and I don’t have much time for planning. However, I want to make the most of my time. This is where The 5 Minute Productivity Journal comes in. It’s a guided journal, which gives you structure and helps you highlight your most important priority for the day in about 5 minutes. It also features a life balance wheel to take into account multiple areas of your life. One thing that it takes into account that most other journals don’t is how you feel and how things went the day before. I hope you love this as much as I do.

This is a book that I wrote, but more than that, it’s one that I personally use as well.

To-Do List Methods

There are several to-do list methods that can help you get more out of it. You may not like all of them. Pick the one that works best for you, or take what you like from several different methods. Your to-do list is personal. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. The importance of a to-do list is that it helps you sort out your thoughts, relieves anxiety, and helps you prioritize tasks. Your to-do list works for you.

#1: Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is named after President Eisenhower. He invented this way to help him prioritize his to-do list and sort through the tasks that really needed to get done and which ones were fluff that took up valuable time. For the Eisenhower matrix, it assumes that you already have a to-do list that’s already done, and is more lengthy and cluttered than it needs to be. First you sort the tasks into 4 categories:

Important/Urgent – these tasks need to get done, and get done now. There are consequences for not doing these tasks or they will yield the most results.

Important/Not Urgent – these tasks are important, but they don’t have to be done now. You can schedule them for later.

Not Important/Urgent – these tasks do not yield much by way of results, but they are urgent and need to be done quickly.

Not Important/ Not Urgent – these tasks have little value. They are the fluff that has crept into your to-do list. While they might be nice to do, they are not important nor urgent. They can be deleted.

You can watch the video below for more instruction:

#2 The Ivy Lee Method

To use the Ivy Lee Method, set aside about 15 minutes at the end of your day.

  • Write down the 6 most important things that you need to do the next day, but not more than 6
  • Prioritize those 6 tasks by importance.
  • The next day, start with the number 1 task on your list and do not move to a different task until task 1 is finished.
  • Continue working through your list during the day not continuing on to the next task until the previous one is finished.
  • At the end of the day, move unfinished tasks to the next day’s list

This method requires you to single task and concentrate on your number one priority each day. It also frees you from distractions because you know you can’t do anything else until you accomplish the task that you are on.

#3: Time-Blocking

We know that time blocking can help increase your productivity. When you time block, you set aside a certain amount of time to accomplish a task. For example, I could block out an hour and a half to write a blog post. At the end of that hour and a half, I stop. This gives me a hard and fast deadline. I know exactly how long I have to work on the task. You will be surprised what you can accomplish when you block your time.

#4: Batch your Tasks

When you batch your tasks, you group like tasks together. For example, you could respond to all of your emails at the same time, schedule all of your errands in one trip, or return phone calls one after the other. I will say that batching your tasks works best with smaller tasks that are similar. I could batch task designing Pinterest images because each one only takes a few minutes, but I cannot batch writing blog posts. I’ve tried, but they take so long to research and write, it’s not practical to write them all in one sitting. Those are tasks that take a longer amount of time.

#5: ABCDE Method

If you have ever heard of a book called “Eat that Frog” by Brian Tracey, you know he’s a master at time management. He’s the one that came up with the ABCDE method. It is for setting priorities, but it applies very well to your to-do list as well.

  • A – Most important tasks; have consequences
  • B- You should probably do it, but it has minor consequences
  • C – It would be nice, but there are no consequences
  • D – Delegate this one. Let someone else handle it
  • E – not important. Eliminate it.

#6 Use Different Lists for Different Things

Our lives are multi-faceted. We usually have many different goals, projects, and things we need to do. You can have your tasks for different projects on different lists. One of the things that’s important about a to-do list is that it gives order to unrelated tasks. This is one way to give order to those tasks by having them on separate lists. All the things you need to do for a certain project are on a list under that project’s name.

#7: Keep it Simple

For me, I like to date my to-do list. That way, I know which day’s list I’m looking at. I also like a place to write down any appointments for that day/week and have a place to write down the tasks that I need to do. Sometimes I make my to-do list by the day, other times I make it by the week. It depends on how much and what I need to get done. For me, simple is best.

The Last Thing You Need to Know About The Importance of a To-Do List

The psychology of list making is responsible in large part for why we like to make lists. It takes unrelated tasks and gives them structure. To do lists are important because they help us relieve anxiety about unfinished tasks and help us prioritize which tasks we should spend our time on first. They save us valuable time by serving as a structure that helps us block out distractions and focus on one thing.

Do you have a favorite to-do list method? How do you do yours? Do you find to-do lists helpful or not? Leave me a comment below!

I'd love to hear from you!

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