To-do lists are like invading Russia in the winter: it sounds like a great idea until you actually try it. A to-do list always starts with great enthusiasm (“I’m a productivity machine!” “I’m going to cross these **** tasks out like a contract killer!”), but fast forward a few days, and the list is still there, and the one task you keep putting off is opening it. That’s probably because you’ve crossed out the easy tasks quickly, and the ones that remain are the real bummers - and who wants to look at those?
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We just have to realize that to-do lists are, more than anything else, a psychological tool. And like most tools we use to manipulate our minds, we have to give a little more thought into how we use them, or they can become counterproductive. With a few insights into why these lists so often fail, we can design a to-do list that is effective, encouraging and useful.
So why is it that most to-do lists become lingering relics on our phones, doing nothing but remind us how we failed to complete them? Because of our psychology, a poorly designed to-do list can actually become demoralizing and decrease your chances of completing a task - through encouraging procrastination, adding mental anxiety and creating negative feedbacks we instinctively avoid. A to-do list is an external tool that impinges on our mind when it deals with productivity - and it can do so in a way that increases the mental failings we already have. Too many tasks can increase the anxiety we probably already feel (um, because we have too many tasks to do). Vague tasks make it hard to feel they are ever truly done, long deadlines encourage procrastination (just like they do when we have to turn in a term paper), and on and on.
Here are some basic rules we think can help you avoid these pitfalls and build a great to-do list:
Keep it short. A long to-do list is demoralizing and adds a sense of clutter. We want our list to be encouraging and add a sense of clarity to our work. Try to create short lists that you can complete within at most a week - preferably a couple of days.
Prioritize. We all have hundreds of tasks that we can come up with. Prioritizing our tasks and removing the less important (or urgent) tasks helps us keep our list short. When we’re done with our list we can always add the next batch to a new list.
Give yourself tasks with short deadlines. Studies have shown that long deadlines actually increase the chances of missing them. Keeping the due dates close also helps prioritize your tasks. When you have three things you need to finish by tomorrow, you’ll get them done. When you have ten things due by the end of the month, you’ll ignore them.
Be specific. Vague, general tasks (“learn to play the guitar”) are hard to complete and tend to linger. Try to create specific, actionable tasks (“sign up for guitar lessons at Cool Al’s music school”). We want tasks that give us the mental reward of marking them ‘Done!’.
Make it into a plan. Studies show that our brain releases mental resources related to a problem once we create a plan to solve it. Make your list be that plan - break up tasks into small chunks, and put them in your list in the order you plan to complete them. Give due dates accordingly. Then, treat you list like a plan for the upcoming day or two.
Reward yourself! Your list needs to constantly give you positive feedback - that’s its power! Don’t delete the tasks marked ‘done’ - keep them around so you can see what you’ve accomplished. Don’t be ashamed to look at the list just to see how much you’ve completed! It’ll give you the energy to go make that ‘done’ list longer.
Keeping these tips in mind can make to-do lists far more useful and fun to use. The Tags Bot for Facebook Messenger can help you find and access your to-do lists in Evernote right from Messenger - just message our page to see how!