In the midst of planning her wedding and slogging through a big project at work, Erin Rooney Doland took drastic action: She put her to-do list in a time-out. Even though Doland, as editor in chief of Unclutterer.com, is in the business of being organized, she herself had fallen prey to a common affliction among the ambitious and driven—call it “to-do-list-itis.” The list had taken over. “I had to physically shut it away in a drawer, to punish it for being so long and making me feel out of control,” she recalls.
But as much as we may resent these scribbled tallies, recent research shows that they’re actually good for the brain. Psychologists already knew that unfinished tasks can distract us and cause anxiety. The study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that making plans about how to handle those tasks helps reduce that anxiety and clear the mind. “When people formed plans for their goals and wrote them down, the tendency for the goals to linger in their minds and distract them disappeared,” says E. J. Masicampo, one of the study’s coauthors.
A to-do list is a great way to start making such plans. But no matter how organized, clever, and user-friendly your to-do list is, its ultimate success depends on its creator— you. If you can’t sit back and enjoy reading a book without feeling judged by your list, consider something else psychologists have learned: Busyness and multitasking are mentally draining, while leisure activities like taking a walk and knitting stimulate the brain in important ways. “The biggest mistake we make when we get overwhelmed is to buckle down and try to get it all done, eliminating downtime,” says Josh Davis, author of the recently published work-productivity book Two Awesome Hours (HarperOne). Need permission to relax? Put it on the list.
Experts agree that a good first step to building a better to-do list is to take 10 minutes to make a loose, long master list. “The stuff that starts going through your head when you lie down at night—call this person, send that email, what’s going on with the dishwasher?—get it all out,” says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply (Portfolio). If the very idea of putting everything down in black and white feels overwhelming, remember that a primary goal of the list is simply to get tasks off your mind.
To turn that rough list into something useful (and less intimidating), break it down into more manageable sub-lists. These might be set up by category (home/work/personal), type of action (emails/errands/shopping), or time frame (today/tomorrow/weekend/future). The key is consistency and organization, so figure out what feels right to you—that will make your list easier to stick with.
Choose Your Tools
Similarly, you need a system that works for you. The daily sticky note may have once been fine, but as our professional and personal lives get more complicated, our organizing systems need to evolve too. Terry Monaghan, a corporate time-management consultant in Alexandria, Virginia, sees even high-powered CEOs clinging to archaic systems. “One client walked into her first meeting with me with a 15-page single-spaced list of everything she wanted to accomplish in life,” she says. “No wonder it was making her crazy.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all method. A visual person might do well with giant whiteboards—one at home, one at work—listing tasks in different colors, while a more analytical, detail-oriented person may be drawn to an hour-by-hour calendar. If you live on your smartphone, try an app like Todoist or Evernote, which will allow you to share tasks with other users (so you can send “pick up milk” to your partner); or Carrot, which has a gamelike points system that may appeal to your competitive side.
Resist the urge to tackle easy items first just to get the jolt of checking themoff. Instead, be strategic, says Davis. “Select the items that will need your best mental energy and address them at times when you can really be energetic and alert. Save the easy items for some relatively sluggish part of the day.”
Regularly check in with your list, and don’t be afraid to reshuffle it. (You’re the boss!) As you do each check-in, you’ll inevitably see items you’re carrying forward from list to list, sometimes for weeks or months. Try scheduling tasks—perhaps some that have been hanging around too long, or that seem particularly challenging—in your calendar, suggests Doland (who, by the way, did make up with her to-do list after a few hours of pouting).
Some items linger on the list not because they’re difficult or off-putting but because they’re just not that important. “Much of what’s on your to-do list is not going to make a major difference in your life,” says Monaghan. Figure out what’s truly valuable. If you have trouble letting go of the idea of, say, organizing your medicine cabinet, but you also can’t seem to ever get around to it, she advises creating a “maybe someday” list. It can sit there happily while you get more meaningful things done.
A List You Can Love
Here are some sample to-dos, along with ways to improve them.
Make Vet Appointment
Include details like phone numbers or addresses to make tasks like this easier to accomplish—and harder to put off.
Organize Spice Rack
Do you reeeeally need to do this, or are you “should-ing” yourself?
Pick Up Dry Cleaning
Can you delegate this to someone else? Can the cleaning be delivered?
Break big tasks like this into the first two or three steps: organize holiday decorations, donate old clothes, etc.
Finish Expense Report
Keep tasks separate by category—e.g., work, household—or due date.
Are you going to do this immediately? If not, put it on a “future” or “maybe someday” list so it doesn’t taunt you.
Pay Credit Card
Autopay! Automate whatever you can in your life to boot it off your list.