To-Do List – what makes some successful task managers4 min read

to-do-listEveryone has a to-do list. Even if you keep it in your head, everyone has one. I use a simple app on my iPhone that syncs with the same app on my iPad and on my desktop to manage my to-do list. This is a recent replacement for a technology I used for 30 years, 3×5 note cards (preferably un-ruled) that stuck out of my shirt pocket.

Regardless of the to-do list technology employed, I am sure that your to-do list is almost always longer than can be fulfilled and increasingly filled with “overdue” tasks. Mine is chronically creeping in that direction.

A recent article on Brain Pickings ( “A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success” by Maria Popova reviewed some recent research  ((mostly focused on a chapter about to-do lists, the third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister)) ) that touches on two useful points.

First, our brains are hard-wired to worry and nag about  things undone. They keep popping up. Psychologists call this the Zeigarnik effect. This posits that the nagging is the brain’s method for getting things done. 

“[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

This suggests that a central purpose of a to-do list is to stop the nagging, not to get things done. My own experience regularly suggests that this is true.  When I review my to-do list and discover items long overdue and long forgotten, I sometimes marvel at how my mind has not been nagging me about these unaccomplished tasks.

So lets turn to the second point discussed in the Brain Picking’s article, prioritization.

“Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

Here is the nub of the to-do list problem: the limited capacity we have for focus and the strain between the tactical and the strategic. Despite our age’s blathering about “multi-tasking” (see my earlier post on this topic) the human brain is really only able to effectively and efficiently perform one task at a time.

I was gratified to see the general’s response because it has been my regularly repeated mantra that if your strategy has more than two or three tasks in front of you and your organization at one moment, make choices and drop the others.

Well, this is nice in theory, but how do you account for the blizzard of little tasks that consume so much of our days? Here is where effective managers apply a range of practices to reduce the number of tasks caused by out of control processes, improve delegation and authority for others (see “Step 1 – Stop Answering Questions” in this earlier article), and seize blocks of time to work on the future.

Finally, all of this supports the wisdom of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity. His “mind-sweep” is a step that I repeat regularly to get stuff out of my head where the brain’s nagging machinery chugs along so relentlessly. And he has wonderful Trash and Someday/Maybe  buckets that help get rid of tasks that will never or almost never be done.