The Psychology of the To-Do-List!

Louise Attenborough, Chocolate Collective

To say I am obsessed with lists would be a bit of an understatement. I can’t actually function without them and shudder at the inevitable chaos that would ensue without them. Shopping lists, to do lists, ‘remember’ lists, I even have a ‘master’ list of things I could/should be cracking on with if any of my other lists were to be completed. They give me control, ensuring I walk out of the door with everything I need, arrive at my destination knowing what I need to do and leave knowing I can skip home and lovingly tick things off. But writing this out loud all sounds a bit sad, pathetic even. I am a mid-30’s professional woman, married with two kids, surely I can remember five items to pick up at Tesco? And why does crossing off ‘buy potatoes’ make me feel so good?


Reading around, it is often suggested that this need for order indicates someone quite disorganised behind it. But I am not convinced. Organisation is what I do, it’s what I’m good at. Admittedly it’s powered by lists, but surely my ‘natural state’ isn’t one of chaos and disorder? Shudder.


In a Psychologies article, “Why do we make to-do lists?”, psychoanalyst Francois Leguil commented that we often stick to lists “in the hope that our day will go the way we planned, without worrying gaps left to chance. We try to convince ourselves that we have control over our world.” This makes me feel a bit better. It’s not that I’m disorganised, it’s the world and our lifestyles that are hectic and the list is the way of managing it.


Problem is, our days never go exactly as planned and The List never gets completed and so with it comes the opposite sense of achievement; failure. I have got into a habit of re-writing my to-do list as my day progresses and I become more realistic about what’s achievable. I have even been known to add additional tasks, just so I can cross them off and feel better. Blush.


So I have been doing a little research into how we can make our to-do lists more achievable and in so doing make us feel motivated and productive, simply because we finish the day with a sense of achievement and pride. Here’s the advice, as a list naturally…


· Be realistic, stop putting pressure on yourself to accomplish 100 tasks

· Be specific and break tasks down if necessary – things will get ticked off quicker and be far less overwhelming

· Give yourself deadlines, don’t leave the task open-ended – the longer give yourself, the more likely the task is to hang around

· Prioritise, even if that means you’ll only achieve one thing today. It’s more than likely the thing you’ve been avoiding will give you the greatest pleasure to achieve

· Look at the pattern of your day, if you know you tend to lull after lunch, don’t assign tasks in need of energy and creativity for the afternoon

· Don’t always work from the top, down. If like me, you like to have a master list and top it up with new tasks, don’t fall into the trap of tackling the new tasks all the time, pushing the older and let’s face it, less desirable ones, to the bottom

· Vary your tasks. Make your daily to-do-list a mix of small and large, creative and administrative, fun and mandatory, for a rounded sense of achievement

· Trial an app – there’s tons out there to choose from. They save you re-writing and can organise them in a way we can all cope with. Watch this space for a follow-up blog as the Queen Bees set off on an App Trial Challenge!


And remember, that things crop up all the time, so accomplishments don’t always start out as to dos, but still count and you should give yourself credit for accomplishing them. Adding things to my own to-do-list, only to cross it off, doesn’t seem quite so bonkers now…!