The Psychology Of The To-Do List

to-do-list

Ten years after David Allen’s bestselling productivity book Getting Things Done, scientific research caught up. We now know why the system is so popular and so effective.

The key behind GTD is writing everything down and sorting it effectively. This act of planning reduces the burden on the brain, which is struggling to hold the mental list of all the things we have to do. Releasing the burden of unfinished tasks on the mind frees it up to become more effective.

Tom Stafford explores this further in his BBC Future column.

“Filing effectively”, in Allen’s sense, means a system with three parts: an archive, where you store stuff you might need one day (and can forget until then), a current task list in which everything is stored as an action, and a “tickler file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).

The current task list is a special kind of to-do list because all the tasks are defined by the next action you need to take to progress them. This simple idea is remarkably effective in helping resolving the kind of inertia that stops us resolving items on our lists. …

Breaking everything down into its individual actions allows the system to take hold, freeing you to either do something or forget about it, knowing the knowledge has been captured in the system. The system does the remembering and monitoring for you.

So what’s the psychology that backs this up?

Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is what psychologists call our mind’s tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. You can see the effect in action in a restaurant or bar – you can easily remember a drinks order, but then instantly forget it as soon as you’ve put the drinks down. …

A typical way to test for the Zeigarnik Effect is to measure if an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.

Our attention has a limited capacity. The GTD system frees up the attention used to keep track of our mental to-do list and acts as a plan for how we will do things, freeing our mind for more effective uses. You don’t actually need to do the things on your list; you only need a plan for when and how to do them.