When life gets busy, sometimes we try to do too much with not enough tools or not enough planning. A great way to get organized is by perfecting the lost art of the To-Do list. Not only does it help us stay organized, its scientifically shown to help with our mental clarity. Take it from McGill University neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind. Levitin surmises, “I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources…get it out of your head, write id down, then prioritize things.” Levitin goes on to say that most people can only hold about four things in their mind at a time, hence the importance to get the small tasks down on paper to free your mind to problem solve the bigger ones.
Another interesting study done by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik shows how completing an item on a list helps free our mind for other tasks. Zeigarnik had study participants perform simple activities like stringing beads or solving puzzles. Some participants were allowed to complete a task from start to finish while other participants were interrupted mid task to start on another project. Afterwards the participants were asked what activities they remembered performing. The participants were twice as likely to remember the uncompleted tasks than the completed tasks. This shows the brain tends to clutter itself with unfinished business, not allowing itself to fully actively engage in new tasks when an item hasn’t been “checked off”. Even the simple act of writing a task down and then upon completion, crossing it off, can allow the brain closure to fully focus on tackling a new problem without expending neural power on other unfinished problems.
When it comes to making a successful To-Do list, it really varies from person to person on which style suites a certain individual the best. One school of thought promotes the idea of starting your list with the easiest task first. Once one task is complete the brain is rewarded with checking off that item, creating incentive to continue on to harder tasks. This same theory is true with starting a To-Do list with the task that can be completed the fastest. Sometimes the easiest and the fastest task to complete aren’t the same thing, so your starting task may be different. Another way to address a to do list is to take a difficult task and break it down to a sub-list of smaller tasks, making it easier to get the ball rolling on a seemingly insurmountable task.