A Guide to the To-Do List

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.

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Coffee should really be listed twice

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.

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So minimal. So unrealistic.

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.

Unclear Outcomes

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.

Further Reading

Lifehacker – Master the Art

NYMag – A Neuroscientist on the Calming Powers of the Todo List

TheMuse – 8 Expert-backed Secrets to Making a Todo List

Empathy for you Future Self

Researchers at the Universities of Zurich and Dusseldorf observeda new technique for managing self-control. This method centers around the use of empathy, the ability to understand the feeling and motivations of others, and applying that understanding to a hypothetical future self.

To study this interaction lead researcher Alexander Soutschek and his team focused on the right temporo-parietal junction or rTPJ, long linked to empathy and selflessness. They designed a set of experiments meant to capture the areas of the brain most responsive when asked questions related to self-control and empathy.

During each experiment the rTPJ was “turned on and off” using a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. This allowed Soutschek and his team to ask questions meant to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction. The first question was run of the mill, participants were asked if they wanted an immediate payout, or a larger one in the future. The second question was meant to trigger feelings of selflessness. Participants had to choose between a moderate reward for themselves or a moderate award for another participant and only a small one for them.

Individuals with a disrupted rTPJ were more likely to take outcomes that benefitted them immediately and less likely to split their prize with another, particularly if they were a stranger.

The results of Soutscheks team were remarkably similar to past work on the TPJ. Researchers have long theorized the role of the TPJ in theory of mind and our ability to form distinctions between the beliefs of self and others. A better connected or larger rTPJ increases the likelihood of prosocial behaviors and altruistic acts. Participants with a stimulated rTPJ have an easier time taking on other people’s perspectives.

But how does this work around empathy end up affecting self-control?

When we empathize with an individual we try to slip into their shoes and understand their perspective, and align our reasoning with theirs. When we practice self-control we take an immediate loss for a larger future benefit.It’s difficult to actualize that benefit unless we practice empathy for our future self.

Soutschek expands on his findings,

“From a neural perspective, the temporo-parietal junction may represent the future self like another person. This means that the same brain mechanisms may be necessary to be patient for a future gain and for being able to share with another person.”

Looking back at the role of the PFC on self-control and now the TPJ we can paint a clear picture for effective discipline in two steps. The PFC manages executive functions involved in long-term decisions, trade-off mechanics, and the delay of gratification.

At the same time we can harness our mind to overcome our egocentricity, our immediate needs, by developing a visualization of our future-self benefitting from your hard-work.

These processes work in tandem to facilitate long-term achievement. Allowing your mindset to shift from the now, to a slightly older, but better off you.