Look at Life: To Do Lists

3rd May 2019

Creating Order Out of Chaos

By Lisa Botwright

“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” claimed 20th century writer and philosopher Umberto Eco, a trifle dramatically. He believed they were a way for humanity to ‘make infinity comprehensible’.

I agree. My to-do lists, which often seem infinite, are an excellent way to navigate the existential behemoth of life, and also to ensure that I remember to pick up my glasses from the opticians and that my youngest doesn’t get left in the car park after football practice because my husband and I are both in meetings and/or simply forget him.

For me, lists bring comfort and create order from chaos. They make me feel like I’m winning at life and that I’m in control, however illusory that is. I have long lists full of work stuff and short lists reminding me what to buy for dinner. I have lists in pretty notebooks covered in doodles and I have shouty lists pinned on the fridge, with ‘don’t forget’ emblazoned in red marker pen. (And yes, we still do forget: the science project, the blue t-shirt for sports day, the ridiculously expensive ingredients for the food technology lesson.)

I even subject my family to a ten minute meeting every Sunday in which we go through the calendar, and write out a new list – weekly planner-style – detailing where everyone has to be, and when, for the next seven days. ‘If it’s not on the list, you can’t have a lift there,’ I remind my teens bossily (and, more often than not, fruitlessly).

There are ‘good’ lists and ‘bad’ lists. The former, as Eco understood, help us break down the overwhelming into the achievable – while the latter only serve to intensify our stress. Take the life goals of 90% of UK adults: ‘get fit’, ‘earn more money’ or ‘find meaning’ – and the enormity of these ambitions is likely to be dispiritingly insurmountable. But writing ‘find a local yoga class that’s on at a time that suits’, ‘update my LinkedIn profile’ and ‘take elderly neighbour’s dog for a walk’ immediately turns them into manageable baby-steps.

Ironically, list-loving Forbes, the American business magazine that regularly curates the world’s wealthiest into envy-inducing tallies, suggests minimising your daily targets. One of their productivity articles champions the idea that less is more: ‘Your To Do list should have NO MORE THAN THREE THINGS on it for a given day’, suggests Vanessa Loder, adding ‘Some of the most highly successful people I know only allow ONE ITEM on their To Do list each day’. It’s all about ‘improving focus’, generating an attainable sense of accomplishment – and not having so much on your list that you consistently avoid doing the one key thing that would move you forward.

I’m not entirely convinced. That might be okay for a multinational CEO with hundreds of staff, but it seems unrealistic for the average person who will have had to tick off half a dozen things before they’ve even had their first sip of tea.

Most of us are so busy that we need to ‘schedule’ scheduling. Finding the time to write a to-do list can be difficult, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy them so much. I tend to produce them when I’m less busy and I see the act of doing so as reflective me-time. The weeks when a list would have been most valuable in organising what needs to be done next are the weeks when even the idea of a list has gone out of the window and I’m careering through the days, rushing to fit everything in. It’s hard to prioritise when everything’s important.

That’s one reason why list-making can be seen as a negative. In 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, author Kevin Kruse writes that to-do lists are ‘where important tasks go to die’, and that lists ‘don’t differentiate between the urgent and the important. “Our impulse is to fight the urgent and ignore the important,” he says; instead advocating that we should learn to say ‘no’ more effectively and ‘time-block’ important things. “Don’t let your calendar fill up randomly or accept every request that comes your way,” he urges. (I’m happy to try this last piece of advice on my non list-complying teenagers when they next ask for an unscheduled lift.)

But most psychological studies support my love of a good list. A pioneering 1920s study identified the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’, showing that when people were unable to complete a job, it generated ‘task-specific tension’. More recently, Professors Baumeister and Masicampo built on this idea to show that, while unfinished tasks will naturally distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety. They concluded, ‘simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective’.

So, whether your lists are long or short, neatly typed up or scribbled down in a rush, they’ll still help you ‘make infinity comprehensible’ – or, at the very least, not forget to pick up your groceries on your way home from work.

Find Your Local