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How to manage expectations for your to-do list

by Lauren Saccone

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There are few things quite as satisfying as a to-do list. Constructing a well-thought-out and organized list can be incredibly gratifying, even though you haven’t really done anything yet. And in some cases, you feel so accomplished having written your to-do list that you feel as if you’ve done enough work for the time being.

Perhaps even more problematic is the dual nature of the to-do list: sometimes it can help you get more accomplished than you ever imagined. Other times it backfires, leaving you overwhelmed and frustrated. How can one little list be so conflicted? I explored why people love to-do lists so much, and how an ideal list may help you get through even the busiest day.

To-do lists bring order to chaos

Fundamentally, a to-do list is an attempt to organize our lives. By writing down what we need to accomplish, we get a clear and concise picture of our day. This can be soothing; after all, if everything is written down in black and white there’s little room for surprises. And that’s part of the reason that writing out to-do lists can make us feel so accomplished: we are, after all, organizing things.

“People love to-do lists because the act of making one makes you feel more in control and, for those who procrastinate, gives you the illusion of being proactive,” explains Psychology Today author Peg Streep. “Note the word ‘illusion’ because if you don’t act on the list, you haven’t accomplished anything other than creating it.” [Editor’s Note: perhaps this is a good time to try the Acceptance pack?]

We may not have completed anything on the list yet, but we intend to. The very act of mentally cataloging our work and obligations can take a huge load off our minds, leaving us satisfied that in some small way we’ve made the world a more organized place.

To-do lists take a load off

If you feel better after writing out your list, there’s scientific evidence backing up your relief. In a 1927 experiment, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik had a group of subjects perform simple tasks ranging from stringing beads to solving easy puzzles. Some were interrupted in their work; others were allowed to complete their tasks unimpeded.

The results were surprising: those who were interrupted were twice as likely to remember their tasks as those that were left to their own devices. What does that mean for your love of lists? The act of stopping to write them down—and hopefully cross them off—actually makes them stick more firmly in your mind. This also reduces the likelihood of you forgetting something important, and having to deal with all the associated stress and panic that comes from remembering an obligation a little too late.

To-do lists give us perspective

While the whole point of a to-do list is to complete tasks, sometimes we can learn just as much from what we don’t accomplish. “It [your to-do list] helps you look at avoidance patterns,” says Rachel Newcombe, a psychoanalyst on Orcas Island and in Seattle. “Why does the same item show up on your list two weeks in a row without being accomplished? What exactly are you avoiding by not doing this task? What will happen when I finish the task? Will I be anxious about the free time it will afford me?”

At the end of your week, sit down and look at your old to-do lists. See what was completed without a hitch, and what had you dragging your heels. Be honest with yourself about the problems and successes you experienced during this time. Not only will this teach you to make a more effective list, it will keep you mindful about how you operate when setting out to get things done.

To-do lists help us focus

Besides giving us a sense of control in a chaotic universe, a well-written to-do list can pinpoint exactly what we need to focus on. There’s no ambiguity or mystery; your goals and tasks are right there in front of you. Additionally, lists help the mind zero in on what’s really important. A good list cuts through all the unnecessary work and leaves you with only the fundamental obligations you need to succeed.

On the other hand, your to-do list can seem like an account of items you have failed to accomplish. Instead of focusing on what you need to do, you focus on what you haven’t done. From there you can end up paralyzed, unable to tackle even the simpler tasks you need to accomplish.

To-do lists can be overwhelming

Have you ever started writing a to-do list and just didn’t stop? To-do lists are meant to be finite, with a definite beginning and end. But sometimes we get overconfident and pile on too many items. Suddenly our humble little list looks pretty daunting. This can backfire, leaving us too overwhelmed to take on even one item on the list. Go for quality over quantity, creating a list of items you realistically can and will do by the end of the time you’ve allotted yourself. Keep it short, simple, and to the point: what do you really need to get done? This will keep you focused on what really matters, and give you a deeper understanding of how you go about your daily life. [Editor’s Note: if you’re really lacking in focus these days, try the Focus pack.]

To-do lists can give you a false sense of accomplishment

A to-do list is only useful if it inspires actual action. Writing out the most organized and well-planned of lists is pointless if you don’t act on them. Finishing your list doesn’t grant you time off.

Try to resist the urge to plan too far in advance; once the list spills over into the second day or even a week, the likelihood of making any progress drops significantly. You want your list to be about what you’ve accomplished, not the things you can’t bring yourself to do.

To-do lists can help us get it together—if used wisely

Like most tools, to-do lists have advantages and disadvantages. So how do you construct one that will actually help you accomplish all those lofty goals?

It won’t surprise anyone that the people who benefit most from to-do lists are those who really don’t need one because they have realistic goals, motivate themselves, and get things done,” explains Streep. “So for everyone else, curate your to-do list carefully and you’ll not only get more stuff accomplished but you’ll sleep better at night.”

One of the best tips is to break down your obligations into smaller and less daunting tasks. By focusing on chunks of work instead of the whole, you’re far more likely to get things done. So instead of ‘Run errands,’ write down the specific errands you need to accomplish. (As an added bonus, you’ll get to cross more things off your list, and feel extra successful.)

Being realistic about your time and energy, plus being mindful of what you really hope to accomplish, will help keep your to-do list in check, and your goals achievable. By spending a little extra time in constructing your to-do list, you’ll soon turn it into a done list.

Lauren Saccone

Lauren Saccone is a writer, social media consultant, and archery coach. Follow her on Twitter @ElleSacc.