How your to-do list may be holding you back

There's a scientific way to make your checklists more effective
Putting it all down.
Putting it all down.
Photo: DAVID DEE DELGADO (Reuters)
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To-do lists are meant to keep us organized and on track—but even the best of intentions can backfire. You might sometimes have to-do lists within your to-do lists, and during hectic times, it seems like more structure is the only way to get the boxes checked. But all of that structure can actually have the opposite of its intended effect: instead of helping us become more effective at working through things, they can actually make us less effective.

All of that structure isn’t always great for us. To-do lists can actually make it hard for us to grow—often because they put the focus on knocking out tasks and moving on, rather than stopping to reflect on what they’ve done for us, according to Eduardo Briceño, co-founder of learning platform​ Mindset Works and author of the new book The Performance Paradox. That focus “tricks us into chronic performance,” Briceño says. And instead of learning anything from all that doing, we plateau.

The more we keep track of doing, the less we take away from them. “Thanks to the flood of emails, texts, Slack messages, and other digital pings, we spend huge portions of each day adding more to our to-do lists,” says financial literacy coach Manisha Thakor. “We’ve forgotten the lost art of reflection, of taking the time to think about what outcome we are trying to generate and whether or not our to-dos are taking us closer to—or farther away—from that spot.”

The one thing you should add to your to-do list

Still, it’s hard to quit the satisfying feeling of striking a line item off your lists. So here’s one addition Briceño suggests: put “take a break” there.

“Performing at high levels and learning take a lot of energy,” Briceño says, “and if we just go, go, go, we don’t perform or learn as well as we could.” Take the myth of deliberate practice, a term coined by the late psychologist Anders Ericsson, who studied how people become experts in their field. It’s not, as many suspect, to practice nonstop, hammering away at goals. Instead, it’s to take breaks.

“The people who become the best in the world engage in deliberate practice only for about an hour and a half at a time,” Briceño explains. After that, he says, the brain needs a stopping point.

Most skilled people—top athletes, top musicians, the best in their field—aren’t working around the clock. And they engage in activities that alternate mental and emotional states, which helps our brain connect previously unrelated ideas in new ways. Those are known as novel connections, which make us more innovative and creative.

“The brain is the most powerful machine you’ll ever own,” says Dr. Julia DiGangi, a neuropsychologist and author of Energy Rising. Like the smartphone, tablet or computer you’re reading this on, she adds, your brain neurologically needs to recharge.

“As much as we would like to imagine otherwise, we are human beings, not machines. Meaning, by definition, we have limited resources,” explains workplace consultant Laura Putnam, author of Workplace Wellness That Works. While batteries are a useful metaphor, that recharge time on your to-do list should be decidedly analog. Getting outside for a walk is an effective break, she says. But using a screen, which 97% of workers report they do during their break time, isn’t.

How to make your checklists more effective

“Don’t confuse elegant to-do list systems with actually getting work done,” Thakor says. “Thanks to technology, the to-do list has morphed from a handwritten document to digital 3-D dartboards. We’ve created some stunningly elegant ways to track our work, but find we still haven’t actually done any work.”

“When we’re not clear on what’s most important to us, we’re likely to live reactively instead of proactively, to be pulled by the myriad people and things trying to get our attention,” Briceño says. We can only create deliberate habits once we get clear on our hierarchy of goals.

At the top are our highest-level goals, which are related most to our values, not our to-dos. “For some people, this may be to honor [their] god, to leave Earth better than they found it, or to be a good steward of their life,” Briceño says. “As we move down the hierarchy, we identify how we seek to achieve those higher aims. These are our lower-level goals: the specific strategies and actions we take.”

If you’re not sure where to start, try making a ta-dah list, where you highlight the daily tasks that bring you joy, pride, or self-compassion, as a way to start identifying your hierarchy of goals. While to-do lists effectively remind us we need to prepare the presentation, book the airline tickets, pay the tuition (and the list goes on!), it’s equally important to schedule 10K training runs, make a giant batch of pesto with our best friend, and have face-to-face time with a loved one without a screen or email in sight.

One thing to do every day that will help you stay on course

We all need to figure out the strategies and systems that work best for us. Briceño is a fan of virtual desktops—so he can keep the one he’s working on free of clutter—and he also recommends checklists and templates for tasks (like packing for a trip or organizing tax documents) we repeat. There’s also the Pomodoro method—which is when you set a timer for 25 minutes and a goal to accomplish in that time, followed by a 5-10 minute break—and the deep work strategy, where certain days are set as distraction-free.

But the real thing Briceño swears by to help him stay on course doesn’t involve a timer or even a piece of paper—it’s gratitude.Similar to how making your bed first thing in the morning may help you feel more accomplished out of the gate, you could use a metaphorical Sharpie and give gratitude a permanent top slot on your daily to-do lists. The science of gratitude says this practice reduces stress, which is important to keep in mind because life is not just about crossing items off our lists but about identifying and reflecting on what really matters in life. At the end of the day, if you’ve started by making your bed and expressing gratitude, you may end up more productive than you ever imagined.