Are to-do lists actually helpful? What about a ‘got-done’ list? Capsule’s Sarah Lang and Kelly Bertrand have some thoughts.
Capsule Feature Writer Sarah: All to-do lists give you is stress
I used to use ‘to-do lists’. That way, I could keep track of what I needed to get done – or at least, that was the plan. But actually, when I sat down to write a to-do list, it just made me stressed at everything that needed doing, when I wasn’t going to get through most of the tasks anytime soon. (I was aware, of course, of deadlines.)
And I found if I have a to-do list, it often meant my husband did less. So perhaps meal planning is on my to-do list, and I end up doing that before he got round to it.
There’s an argument that ‘to-do lists’ can be stressful because they tend to be too long for what you can realistically get done – and you may then focus on what you didn’t get done. In fact, ‘to-do lists’ can make it likelier to do the easy tasks (e.g. clearing your inbox) rather than the harder, long-game tasks (e.g going to the gym).
Someone who’s not a fan of the to-do list is best-selling author Kevin Kruse, the founder and CEO of LEADX, an online learning platform that provides free leadership development for millions of people. For his book 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, he surveyed 239 entrepreneurs, 13 Olympic athletes, 29 straight-A students, and 7 billionaires to find out more about time management and productivity. One of his top ‘secrets’? ‘Don’t Use To-Do Lists’, as 41% of to-do list items are never completed. It seems that when tasks aren’t ticked off, that’s what our brains focus instead on what we did get done.
As Kruse writes, “Your to-do list is the graveyard of important but not urgent tasks. To-do lists should be called nagging wish-lists. A series of tasks you hope to accomplish, without a specific plan as to when you’ll get them all done. How many items on your current to-do list have been there for several days? Or months? Years?” Everyone raise your hands!
If you love a good list, you have another option. In an article in Fast Company magazine/website, James Carbary says research shows that ‘got-done lists’ are more effective than ‘to-do lists’. “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 fulfil the core areas of our lives… Many of the actions on our ‘to-do lists’ – those that govern our daily lives – don’t actually correspond to our main values.”
In other words, if we’re tied to our ‘to-do lists’, we may not be taking time for what actually matters most in our lives. For instance, you might keep meaning to approach a charity to offer to do volunteer work, but that doesn’t happen because it’s always near the bottom of your ‘to-do list’ in terms of urgency.
What if you make a different list of things that matter the most in your life? One might be, for instance, ‘health and wellness’ or ‘community and spirituality’. What if you spend a few minutes in the evening writing a ‘got-done’ list, to help you appreciate your progress toward those wider goals?
One day this week, I created the categories of those things that mattered the most, and trialled the ‘got-done list’. I wrote down things that wouldn’t have occurred to me to put on my to-do list: including ‘helping others’. For instance, I’ve contacted DCM, a charity that does phenomenal work helping the homeless community in Wellington, to offer to volunteer.
And, as per the category of “quality family time”, I did half an hour’s reading with my son after school rather than putting him in front of the TV while I scrolled through my phone. And I actually walked rather than drove to pick him up, which falls under the ‘health and wellbeing’ category. The ‘got-done’ list helped me realise how much I’d achieved, rather than how much I didn’t do.
Capsule Editorial Director Kelly: You can prise my to-do list out of my cold, dead hands
I should start with the beautiful irony that writing this story has been on my to-do list for weeks and damn, I’m looking forward to ticking it off when I’ve finished.
Looking at my horrifically long list should be overwhelming. It should be confronting. It should be panic-inducing.
But I love my to-do list, and I couldn’t image doing my job – or living my life – without one.
I’m that stereotypical Virgo. I absolutely froth organisation. We’re talking Google Drive folders, perfectly laid-out workspaces and meticulous spreadsheets (although I haven’t quite mastered how to do one for budgeting… funny that).
But the nucleolus of my working day are my to-do lists, laid out in a specific order in my notes app on both my phone and my computer (God bless you, Apple).
It’s like my little office buddy, keeping me on track and cheering me on as I tackle what I need to get done in a day. It helps my mind clear and my brain focus on other things, because I know I won’t forget what’s next. While having such a long un-done list stresses Sarah out, it soothes me. Well, mostly.
I’m the type of person that, if I’ve forgotten to add something to a list and do it anyway, will add it just for the sheer satisfaction of crossing it out. And I’m not the only one.
Author and psychologist Dr David Cohen is also a list-lover. Preferring a physical format in a diary, he constantly checks his lists. “My family think I’m chaotic, but I would be much more so without my lists – they’ve kept me in line for years,” he told the Guardian.
He reckons we love lists for three reasons: They help to dampen anxiety about the chaos of life (preach); they give us structure and a plan we can actually stick to and see; and they’re proof of what we’ve achieved in a given time frame.
Ah, the list validation. There is nothing better than a finished to-do list. I strive for the day everything on mine has a nice little yellow tick next to it, and that goal motivates me and drives me to productivity, even when I’d rather put the tools down and grab a glass of wine (I just drink the wine and work at the same time, call me a problem solver.) The dopamine high of achievement gives me that little boost to get to the net thing and I’ll do my best to chase that high again. Achieving makes me feel like I’m that put-together woman who’s slaying the day at work, and then can go on with that momentum with my friends, my boyfriend, my home and every other corner of my life.
Of course there are times when my list will overwhelm me. But it’s not the list’s fault – it’s the fault of trying to run a small business in the middle of a pandemic.
With to-do lists, there’s an element of controlling the relatively uncontrollable – a never-ending workload that will never relent. As soon as the task is on the list, I feel relief. I’ve acknowledged it, I’ve planned for it, I’ll do it.
Researchers EJ Masicampo and Roy F Baumeister wrote a paper that seems to agree with me: Headed Consider it Done! (LOVE that), they posit that when you create a roadmap to reaching a goal, you’re more likely to achieve it and more likely to focus better in other areas of your life too.
Tells EJ to the Harvard Business Review, “When we make a plan to complete a task, we help ourselves in two ways. First, we ease the stress we may feel in having to constantly remind ourselves that there is an important thing we still need to do. Externalizing the task in some way helps reduce that work. We no longer have to remember it.
“Second, the benefit of committing to a specific plan eases the uncertainty we may feel about whether we’ll be able to achieve the task… making a plan forces us to solve the problem — we have to figure out what actions we need to take to complete the task and how and when to enact them. We have a roadmap to success (aka, task completion). So, despite not having acted on it yet, we feel more at ease knowing that success is attainable and forthcoming.”
So, in summary, you’ll have to prise my beloved to-do list out of my cold, dead hands. And with that, I’m off to check a box and GOD it’ll be glorious.