To-Do Lists: Tips for Easing the Drain on Your Brain

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“I’m not big on to-do lists. Instead, I use e-mail and desktop folders and my online calendar.”

– Bill Gates

As you can see from Bill Gates’ comment, it’s entirely possible to accomplish what needs doing without a to-do list. In fact, I manage my work to-dos more or less the way he does (I also have hard copies of certain things).

For the rest of my life, though, I use a combination of Google calendar and to-do lists. The calendar includes appointments, birthdays and my home maintenance calendar, but I also keep old-fashioned paper to-do lists. In part, because it feels so good to check things off.

And that’s not just anecdotal. In a Harvard Business Review article, professors Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats note, “After you complete a task, being able to literally check a box makes you happier than when you are not given a box to check.”

There are other reasons to keep track of your to-dos either on paper or electronically. For one, trying to remember tasks takes up a lot of space in your brain. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks. In other words, uncompleted tasks stay on your mind until you finish them. This is known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Researchers E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister have found that simply making plans to finish a task helps clear the task from your mind, freeing up mental space for accomplishing things. Newer research indicates that writing down your to-dos may help you fall asleep faster, too.

“The best to-do list app will always be whatever works for you.”

– Casey Newton

Newton goes on to say (in a The Verge article reviewing to-do apps):

One reason for the enduring popularity of pen-and-paper-based methods is that they can map perfectly to your individual needs…. You impose your own point of view on a paper to-do list, for better and for worse. Software, on the other hand, imposes its viewpoint on you. It asks you to bend your way of working to the only one it knows, in ways that can be suffocating.

I used to jot notes on random pieces of paper, which sometimes got misplaced, but I’ve gotten more organized.

My Hipster PDA (a stack of index cards stuck together with a binder clip) stays on my desk at home. When I’m not home, I jot notes in a small notebook (like this) I keep in my purse and transfer them to my Hipster PDA when I get home.

Some of you might remember about a month ago when I complained that my brain was full. As a result, I started keeping to-do lists for a week ahead, when I used to do only a day or two.

What makes this work for me is that I’m not actually trying to figure out everything I’m going to do a week in advance. It just gives me a place to write down something as I think of it, instead of having to remember it.

Of course, what works for me might not work for you. And what works for you today might not work for you next year.

Whether you use Evernote, todoist or another app, a gorgeous Bullet Journal, a Hipster PDA or a cheap notebook, these to-do list tips may help you calm your mind and get more done:

1. Do a brain dump. Write down everything.

2. Anything that needs to be done at a specific time, such as a business meeting or a dental appointment, must be on your calendar.

3. Keep your to-do list realistic. Remember that you’re unlikely to get as much done as you expected.

4. Do not transfer stuff to your daily to-do list that you know you’re not going to do anyway. Your brain-dump list will keep you from forgetting your “someday” to-dos.

5. Check your brain-dump list each day and update your to-do list accordingly.

How do you organize your to-dos?

2 thoughts on “To-Do Lists: Tips for Easing the Drain on Your Brain

  1. I always say “ if it ain’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist”. I put 5 year reminders to call septic clean out company. I put reminders to change Hvac filters, car oil change etc. I might change the date when reminder hits, but I keep on calendar until done. I put random calendar entries to remind me where I stored out of season items. When the reminder pops up, I read it then move it forward. I brain dump all steps in a project on the calendar (buy the present, mail the birthday card, get restaurant reservation, etc) If a reminder pops up and I don’t need it right then( check smoke alarm batteries), I simply move it forward to a more convenient time .

    • Thanks for sharing, Gail. That’s exactly how I handle my home-maintenance calendar. I really like the idea of adding calendar entries to remind you of where you’ve put out-of-season items.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.