To-Do Lists – a Bit of Better Psychology

To-Do lists are on our minds in the office at the moment. We’re constantly debating the pros and cons of them, and what makes them work and what makes them fail as task management tools.

Yes, we’re thinking about new features for Milestone Planner. A timely post on brain pickings caught my attention :-  A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success. The whole post is a great little read, but a couple of nuggets stood out to me:

  • Firstly, the pivotal role of to do lists in the relationship between habits and goals. Benjamin Franklin’s personal battles, focused around lists and virtues, may be familiar to some of you. It is something that comes up again and again in his writings. There is something inescapable about the need for them.
  • Secondly, at good reminder that our brain appears to be wired to nag us about unfinished work. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of a random reminder popping into your brain at the most inopportune moments. It’s call the Zeigarnik effect.

To quote:

“It turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan.”

It’s a view we’ve held for a long time: If something is bothering your brain, record an action, or a milestone, or even a couple of actions, that detail the next steps. It puts your mind at rest, and then next time you sit down to review your plans or to do list, it’ll be right there.

Much of the post is based around the John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister book: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, and the place of lists:

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists”

As Umberto Eco puts it: ” We like lists because we don’t want to die.” – Lists are often seen as draining and disempowering, but they can be motivating, empowering and releasing. Capturing the niggling commitments in our heads, and placing them into a trusted, curated system. Doing so frees your mind from fussing, and let’s you get on with the good stuff you are doing right now. Marking things off of that list lets you see real progress, and when the list is against and milestone or goal, it connects you with your purpose. Yes, lists can be infinite (hence Eco’s comment about their links to mortality) – but capturing them makes then finite. We can tick things off, or remove them.

Milestone Planner started its life as a ‘top down’ planning tool – set goals, then break them into milestones and actions. We are increasingly blending that with the ‘bottom up’ – groups of actions that form into pursuits, that emerge as goals. There are many places where that kind of emergent planning makes good sense. By combining top-down and bottom-up approaches, a highly agile, purposeful type of planning emerges. We’ll be blogging more about that over the next few releases.

In the meantime, when something pops into your head, pop it into your plan. It’s just the Zeigarnik effect nudging you into doing a little planning!


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