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How Your To-Do List is Killing Your Productivity

If you’re anything like me, your to-do list is a mix of meaningless words (I’m not quite sure what I meant by a task simply labeled, “pinball”) and months-old testaments to procrastination. It seems no matter how much I wish I had a fully functional tally of tasks, my brain conspires to keep it a useless mess.

Turns out, most of us are unwittingly sabotaging our own efforts to stay on top of tasks by writing our to-do lists the wrong way. To find out how to fix them, I consulted a cadre of brain researchers and experts. Not only is a working to-do list attainable for anybody, but thanks to these brain-hacky shortcuts, it’s also probably easier than you think.

Hand-write your list

Plenty of apps are available to soup up your agenda items, but try going old school and putting pen to paper. A growing body of research suggests that writing things out can help you learn or memorize items. One possible reason: The tactile act of writing engages different brain functions, providing another pathway for an item to sear itself into your memory. “Basically, it’s like providing a double dose of memory,” said Bennett Bertenthal, Ph.D., a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. 

Write down specific and actionable tasks

There’s a strong consensus among researchers and experts that the more specific and actionable an item on your to-do list is, the more likely you are to, well, do it. A lot of this comes down to cognitive load: If you are scanning a to-do list and see a vague item, you still have to make a decision about exactly how to tackle it. That can be enough mental work for your brain to simply shove the item into its “later” drawer. 

“99 percent of every to-do list i’ve seen—and I’ve seen countless numbers of them—are nothing but incomplete lists of unclear stuff,” says David Allen, a productivity consultant best known for his bestselling book, Getting Things Done. “You’ll see things like ‘Mom’ or ‘Bank’ or 'Doctor.' Well, good; but what’s the next action? There’s still decisions and thinking that are required.”

Instead of simply “Mom”, write “Call mom to discuss tax issues.” Instead of “Doctor,” specify “Go to doctor’s office to pick up prescription.” 

Break down items into smaller tasks

According to John Williamson, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Florida, it could help to break your items into smaller, more attainable chunks. Tackling these bits (remember: you’ll want to make them actionable tasks!) can make it easier to feel like you’re making real progress, and reward you with little wins and positive reenforcement that makes it easier to stick with your to-do list. 

Turn it into habit

If you can successfully make something a daily habit—whether it’s going to the gym or maintaining a to-do list—it just seems to get done, with little effort. According to Williamson, our brains handle these “automatic processes” differently from one-off tasks, which rely on separate neurological functions and require far more attention and effort to complete.

“Repetition is how you get a controlled process to become an automatic process,”Williamson says. “You need to internalize that it’s a good thing that can help you to the point where you make sure to do it every day.”

In other words: Like every good habit, maintaining your to-do list could start out hard, but it gets easier if you put in the time.

Make sure it’s always accessible

If your list is locked in one location—well, you may need another to-do list just to remember to update that one. “This is why apps are a good mechanism—they’re always with you on your smartphone,” Bertenthal says. I like Clear ($4.99, iOS) for its simple and elegant design; and the note-taking app Evernote (free) for its ability to sync across multiple devices and platforms.  

Fight the planning fallacy

It’s known as the Planning Fallacy: Humans tend to underestimate just how much time and effort our own tasks will take. According to Dan Goldstein, Ph.D., a psychologist and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, being overly optimistic can cause items to linger on your lists, and keep you from feeling the sense of accomplishment makes it fun and easy to keep them going. 

 “One way to fight this that has been suggested in the literature is to ask yourself how long it would take for someone else to complete the task, as predictions of other people’s task completions tend to be more accurate,”Goldstein says. “And because research suggests people may be better at gauging the time required to complete smaller tasks, it helps to break a big item up into discrete steps, and ask yourself how long these bite-sized bits will take.”

Add that to the choir of voices advocating small, achievable steps over monster projects. 

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