The psychology behind to-do lists and how they can make you feel less anxious
Updated 5:16 AM EDT July 14, 2020
1. Wake up.
2. Make coffee.
3. Write this story.
In a time when it seems like we may have less to do, a to-do list actually could be quite helpful.
As the days blend together for many people living in lockdown, crossing things off a to-do list can feel even more satisfying. To-do lists can be great tools for decreasing anxiety, providing structure and giving us a record of everything we’ve accomplished in a day.
The trick is to reframe your to-do list as a set of miniature goals for the day and to think of your checklist items as steps in a plan.
Research on the psychology of goal-making has revealed that an unfinished goal causes interference with other tasks you’re trying to achieve. But simply making a plan to facilitate that goal, such as detailing steps on a to-do list, can help your mind set it aside to focus on other things.
“Goals are interesting as they are almost these autonomous agents that kind of live inside you and occupy space in your mind,” said E.J. Masicampo, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“When a goal is unfinished it might be a weight on your mind in terms of anxiety or worry and it colors how you see the world, because it’s sort of tugging at the sleeve of your conscious attention,” Masicampo said. “It can be omnipresent whether you’re aware of it or not.”
People with unfinished short-term goals performed poorly on unrelated reading and comprehension tasks, reported a 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Masicampo and research co-author Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at The University of Queensland.
But when the 2011 study participants were allowed to formulate specific plans for their goals before moving onto the next task, those negative effects were eliminated.
“We were able to find that you don’t have to finish the goal to offload it — you really could just make a specific plan for how to attain it to get it to stop occupying that mental space,” Masicampo said.
But Masicampo cautioned that it won’t help to offload your mental burden by jotting it down on a list “without actually making a plan.”
“To-do lists often tend to be mental graveyards, but that said I think there’s some relief there,” Masicampo said, adding that sub-goals are important. “Something that’s been sitting there for too long is probably just stated in too big terms.”
With the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis and the difficulty of making concrete plans, he said it could make sense to have your initial plan be simply to make a plan at a later date.
Stuck in the middle
In order to work effectively, your to-do list’s mini-goals also need to be well defined and have short time frames. That’s because people also tend to give up in the middle of goals, according to psychologists.
The solution is to make the “middles” of your goals and to-do list tasks short.
One place people get stuck is exercise, but a goal to exercise half the days each week will be easier to stick to than exercising half the days each month. Even then, exercise will make it onto your to-do list more often at the beginning and end of the week — but it’s difficult to motivate yourself on Wednesday.
“We celebrate graduations at work and cheer when we finish big projects. But there is no celebration for middles. That’s when we both cut corners and we lose our motivation,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago who is an expert on motivation and decision-making.
“We will still slack in that middle, and having long projects invites a long middle.”
To-do lists also need to be flexible. If your plans change or get interrupted by an endless flurry of Zoom calls, it’s important to recognize that’s not the end of the world.
“If we measure ourselves by how much we stick to the plan, that’s not good for motivation,” Fishbach said. “There’s a fine line between keeping structure and keeping your to-do list and also being very flexible. Because things change and they change on a daily basis.”
It’s not a wish list
For all the structure and stress reduction that to-do lists can provide, they can sometimes add to anxiety. That’s because tasks on your to-do list that linger for weeks or months are bad for mental health and motivation.
“To-do lists are interesting because they sometimes become commitments. Once you write an activity or goal down on a piece of paper, it’s work undone,” said Jordan Etkin, an associate professor of marketing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and an expert on goals.
Do you want to complete extra work-related tasks aiming for a promotion and cook dinner for your family that night? Cue goal conflict.
“The more things people put on their lists, the more open they are to creating goal conflict and its sort of negative downstream effects,” Etkin said.
Conflicting goals can create stress and even that overwhelming feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, according to Etkin’s 2015 study in the Journal of Marketing Research.
To-doing it right
To use a to-do list the right way, Etkin said people need to clearly define their goals and differentiate the tasks they definitely want to get done today versus tasks they want to do “maybe someday.”
Tasks need to be clearly ranked in terms of importance.
“To-do lists can be very helpful for informing how you should be directing your time and cognitive resources,” Etkin said. “I think where challenges emerge is when people treat to-do lists like wish lists, rather than the things they definitely want to do today.”
Having a productive to-do list shouldn’t make you feel like you can’t take a break, Etkin also stressed, even if you haven’t crossed all those items off your list yet.
“It’s also important for people to have protective time in their lives where they’re not striving towards any goal,” she said.
To-do lists can be great tools to keep us going during this time of coronavirus boredom, uncertainty, and pandemic anxiety, but it’s important to not fill up your leisure time with productivity. One of the most important tasks we can add to our daily list, Etkin said, is “rest.”