The Science of To-Do Lists: Psychology Can Make You More Productive

Author and Journalist
Are to-do lists about feeling a sense of accomplishment or actually getting things done? The typical way of writing lists can result in feeling good about yourself at the expense of productivity.
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TRANSCRIPT

Charles Duhigg:  Before I started working on this book I wrote to do lists the same way that most people write to do lists. And it turns out this is exactly the wrong way to write a to do list according to psychologists and neurologists. I would sit down in the morning and I would just jot down all the tasks I wanted to do that day. And I would put on a couple of things at the top of my page that were like pretty easy to do. Because it felt so good to cross those off like early in the day and feel a sense of accomplishment. And I’d put my big tasks at the bottom of the page. Sometimes at the top of the page I would even write things that I had already done because it just made me so happy to like sit at my desk and be able to cross something off right away.

Psychologists call this using a to do list for mood repair rather than for productivity. And it turns out this is exactly the wrong way to write a to do list. The right way to write a to do list, the way that genuinely productive people at companies write to do lists is that at the top of the page they write their big ambition, their stretch goal. They write something that seems almost impossible to achieve because that reminds you all day long what you actually want to get done. And then underneath they write out a plan. They write a smart goal. They break that big ambition into small components. Now that gives me a way to start in the morning. But what’s important is that when I get something accomplished, when I’m able to cross something off my to do list I don’t experience that sense of relief that allows me to go spend half an hour or 90 minutes like on Facebook, right.
I don’t feel like I can take a break and I can go waste time wandering around. I’m ready to start on the next task because at the top of my page I’m constantly being reminded that although I’m making incremental progress this is in service to a bigger goal. There’s something bigger and more meaningful that I want to accomplish this day. And as long as I’m being reminded of that, that I still have a plan study after study shows I’m much more likely to get more things done and to focus on the right things each day.