435: To-Do List

How do you keep track of your to-do list?

Full episode script

OK, I’ll admit it. I started a list for this episode. A list, specifically, of to-do list apps and notetaking assistants and even to-do list craft projects on Pinterest. I went seriously down the rabbit hole, which I find amusing given that my personal to-do list is usually written out with pen and paper, old-school style. Even though I live my life largely digitally.

And there’s good reasons to keep a to-do list. Especially if it is one that is prioritized and organized to be truly useful. In May of 2017, The Guardian paper wrote a veritable love letter to these lists, pointing out several researchers throughout history who agree.

Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety. The pair observed that people underperform on a task when they are unable to finish a warm-up activity that would usually precede it. However, when participants were allowed to make and note down concrete plans to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the next task substantially improved. As Bechman notes: “Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective.”

Yet as Fast Company pointed out in 2015, to-do lists can also have a hand in the feeling of completely overwhelmed, and feeling like we have no time or ability in our lives to actually – you know – get things done. They advocate for a “got-done” list, which is written to highlight the tasks that are actually completed, and even how they dovetail (or not) with our values. Quote:

Whereas to-do lists track deficits–things that need to happen by a certain time–got-done lists make tallies of all the things we do, however small, to fulfill the core areas of our lives. Regularly writing down–and checking off–your accomplishments creates a self-reinforcing cycle. It helps you visualize and appreciate the attributes you possess that drive you toward ever bigger goals. Show me a to-do list that made you feel that way.

What’s the basis of this difference? Got-done lists help remind you that big goals can be deceptive; more often than not, they’re simply the aggregation or conclusion of a series of smaller, infinitely more manageable tasks. But if you don’t make it a habit to reflect deliberately on the ones you’ve accomplished, it’s extremely hard to see that.

Personally, I think it’s a difficult and yet important mix to keep in mind. To-do lists can keep us going, keep us organized, and make us more effective. Got-done lists, though, perhaps should also have a space in helping remind us what we’re actually doing to live the kind of life we want to live — or help us figure out where we need to shift.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.