The to-do list has been around for ages, and for good reason.
Short term memory holds 5-7 items, varying by individual and what we’re hoping to retain. Unfortunately the average human has countless priorities and decisions to consider from the moment they wake up.
These tasks occupy space in working memory and are quickly forgotten when more pressing or demanding matters start to occupy our attention. Things like driving or or attending to a screaming child can make it incredibly difficult to facilitate working memory.
There’s no reason to commit any one off task to long term memory. So we either keep it active in our working memory or write it down. Writing it down frees up space in our working memory and gives you a real world space to store your tasks.
But, not all to do lists are the same. Below are several common mistakes people make when planning their schedules. Avoiding these should increase your completion rate and help you stick to your goals.
The most common pitfalls
- Too many to-dos
- Poor time management
- Lack of priority
- Uncertain Outcomes
Too Many To-dos
Your to-do list should serve as an extension of your memory, not a replacement. You list should be limited to items that can be accomplished in the time they’ve been written for. There’s no benefit to include tomorrow’s work today. Schedule an alarm or put it on the calendar if you truly need a reminder. Don’t let extraneous work creep into today’s focus.
In fact the more tasks that go incomplete, the more likely you are to trigger the Ovsianka Effect. The act of tricking yourself into believing that work you set for yourself really wasn’t the useful or worthwhile.
Poor Time Management
The more time you have to finish a task the less likely you are to get it done. A bit of a paradox but easily explained. We’re lenient on ourselves. If we estimate something will only take an hour and have four to finish it in, we’ll try and put it off. We pretend that spending those first few hours relaxing will set us up for serious productivity. In reality, it’s all but impossible to pull ourselves away from whatever we’re engrossed in. We have to fight mind, body, and soul just to get off the couch to get get going. It’s better to work first and relax later.
As an added bonus once you’ve completed that work you’re completely free to enjoy the day as you like. There’s no transitioning away, no guilt from forgetting to do something. Just you, being completely present.
Lack of Priority
If something needs to get done you shouldn’t bury it at the bottom of your lists. Put it front and center and do it first. If the task itself seems to daunting you need to break it down into manageable chunks.
Humans prefer work that improves over time. As we transition away from our most difficult tasks we feel a sense of relief that what’s ahead of us will be even easier. On top of that we get a rush of accomplishment from squaring away our biggest task straight away.
On the other side, if we try and check off our easy tasks first we may end up tricking our brain into believing we’ve earned a break. While you probably have, you end up exposing yourself to interruptions. Not only will you have to shift back from play to work, but some overwhelming distraction could completely derail your day. Leaving you with the task of finding more time to complete your daunting work.
If you’re trying to include tasks that’ll take multiple days or weeks to accomplish you’ll only be setting yourself up for failure. With unclear goals the work you end up doing becomes difficult to track and could upset your pacing.
Your daily goals or new routines should be concise. Allowing you the opportunity to reflect on whether you’ve done enough or have the ability to fit a bit more in each day.
Instead of “clean the yard” break it down into chunks. Clean up after the god, mow the lawn, water the plants, and weeding. Doing so helps arrange your work day and keep track of time. On top of that knocking off multiple items feels good and looks more accomplishing.
How do I do it?
My best results come from organizing and planning my work early in the morning or, ideally, night before. This adds a natural flow to my day, checking off my priorities as I go means my time is well managed and there’s never a question if I have time for a longer break in my day.
At most I put 7 tasks on my todo list. And I commonly get to five or six, though recently I’ve been completing everything. And yes, I’m bragging. I think it’s important to give yourself a pat on the back. It’s one of the best parts of accomplishments. And, there’s probably a fair amount of science agreeing with me.