The to-do list is a tyrant that will keep your life and your goals small

Tiny victories won’t always be enough.
Tiny victories won’t always be enough.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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There’s immense satisfaction in the act of crossing an item off a to-do list. It feels powerful, like a definitive strike against overwhelming responsibility. As Quartz At Work’s Lila McLellan has reported, simply saying the word “done” gives our neurochemistry a valuable happiness boost. As that relaxed, satisfied feeling accumulates, it builds the confidence necessary to take on increasingly challenging tasks.

But chasing that feeling of accomplishment comes with a price: A constant focus on short-term tasks hurts productivity in the long run.

Faced with a daunting number of things to accomplish, we often default to the strategy of tackling items that can be easily completed first. “I look at my email inbox and sadly, instead of turning to those things that are most important, I use the simple heuristic of, ‘Which of these can I knock off?’” said Bradley Staats, an associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. (He’s describing a painfully familiar feeling.)

In the short term, finishing relatively simpler jobs reduces workload faster. But by defaulting to jobs we’re confident we can complete, we forgo the chance to learn how to do more challenging ones effectively.

Staats was part of a team that conducted a two-year study of productivity, both in a lab and in a hospital emergency room. The researchers found that as their subjects’ workload increased, people did in fact work faster, in part by choosing tasks that could be accomplished quickly. But as doctors’ preference for easy patients with simpler cases grew, their productivity over time decreased. Staats and his colleagues believe the reason has to do with learning.

“If you’re diverting to the simpler task consistently, you’re missing out on that learning opportunity,” Staats said. “There’s a real cost to it in terms of your long-term performance.”

The other problem with the “cross-off” mindset is that it biases us toward easily completed tasks with relatively small impact. It feeds what the writer and educator Parker Palmer called a “cultural obsession with being effective, as measured by short-term results.”

To keep after big-picture projects while still getting the serotonin kick of accomplishment, break down ambitious goals into smaller, discrete tasks that can be accomplished in a short time frame. As Parker put it in a commencement address highlighted by the site Brain Pickings, “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

The to-do list is a useful tool for getting through the day. Just don’t let it be a tyrant that keeps your life and your goals small.