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Be productive: how to make your to-do list more effective

Some people swear by them, some say they kill creativity. For Lizzie Enfield, a to-do list is an essential part of life – but can she make it even more effective?

by Psychologies

to-do list

8 minute read

Leonardo da Vinci and I have something in common, according to a biography on the Renaissance genius – we both have a daily to-do list. That’s where the comparison between us ends. His includes: 

  • Calculate the measurement of Milan and suburbs
  • Discover the measurement of Corte Vecchia (a courtyard in the Palazzo Ducale Mantova in Venice)
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle
  • Find out what a woodpecker’s tongue looks like

His list shows an endlessly curious mind and tireless pursuit of knowledge. My lists are mundane – work and household related – but making them is an important part of my daily process; a prioritisation of what needs to be done and, once things have been crossed off, evidence of achievements. Finish work project: check. Phone mother: check. Shopping: check. I am smiling already.

Da Vinci wasn’t the only notable list maker in history: John Lennon, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison (to keep the list short) all used them to keep track of ideas, thoughts and tasks and, these days, lists have spread into just about every area: shopping lists, business databases, bestseller lists, shortlists and longlists, Christmas and birthday lists, bucket lists, experiences lists – the list goes on. Our proclivity for making lists has even spawned new lines of stationery, with notepads and books dedicated to specific types of lists, such as travel plans.

If you write it, it’s real

It’s tempting to think we are all so busy making lists that we’re not actually doing the things on them but, on the contrary, psychologists and expert list makers say, when done right, lists can help us achieve more. Paula Rizzo, a New York-based TV producer and author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists To Be More Productive, Successful And Less Stressed (Viva Editions, £11.99), cites lists as one of the most powerful tools in our work and life kits. ‘Lists make you accountable and motivated and they remind you of your intentions. The very act of noting something down is powerful, creating both the impetus to do it and reminding you to do it.’

Rizzo describes herself as a ‘glazomaniac’ – an obsessive list maker, with lists of everything from places to go, story ideas, apps to try, books to read and events to plan. At their most functional, she says, lists free our brain from the task of remembering, making us more effective at whatever it is we are supposed to be doing at the time.

‘The fact that you have a lot of things to do can distract you from what you are currently doing – but there is evidence that having a plan to do them frees us from that distraction. The simple process of writing down what you have to do enables you to park it elsewhere until you’ve finished what needs doing first.’

Black-and-white power

But don’t have too many lists, Rizzo says, and make sure that the ones you have are specific: Don’t write ‘Emails’ as a header – make a note of who you need to email and what it’s about, and ensure tasks are doable. ‘Don’t put your life’s ambitions on the list or you will create a sense of failure. Put down things you have a realistic chance of achieving within a given time period.’

I have a friend who makes lists of things she’s already done, purely for the pleasure of crossing them out. I think this is counterproductive but psychologist, author and film-maker David Cohen maintains that a completed list reduces anxiety, not just about the things we have to do but about the world in general. ‘In psychology, the locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have power over events in their lives. Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions, whereas those with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors. A list is a way of being in charge. Sorting things out and getting jobs done gives you a sense of having influence on a world that seems beyond your control,’ he says.

On the day I spoke to him, Cohen’s to-do list ranges from discussing film deals and talking to agents to doing the laundry and checking his bank balance. It sounds formidable to me, and perhaps a little undoable, but he has tips for getting through jobs.

‘Break down tasks,’ he advises. “‘Write a book” is a formidable task; “Write the opening paragraph” – less so. And resist the urge to keep transferring. If you didn’t do something today, it makes sense to add it to the list of things to do tomorrow or later in the week. But, if you didn’t do it this year, is it something you actually need to do?’

Being organised isn’t dull

I talk about my lists with Rizzo. I have various lists of yearly, monthly, weekly and daily tasks and, like Cohen, they range from ‘Finish report’ to ‘Clean the bathroom’. She advises me to keep work, home and leisure lists separate. ‘It won’t help you finish that report if you can see a visible reminder that the kitchen needs cleaning or a note to book theatre tickets,’ she explains.

An artist friend declares that she has no time for lists. ‘It’s like writing yourself a set of instructions for the day,’ she scoffs. ‘It’s not art. It’s prescriptive and stifles creativity.’ This friend’s work is abstract and her home somewhat chaotic – but perhaps this approach feeds her creativity. Should I be more like her?

Rizzo doesn’t think so: ‘We all live in a world where mundane and practical things need to be done and, if we have an organised approach to this, it frees up time in which to focus on doing the things we love and pursuing creative projects.’

I know from experience that there is a potential negative aspect to making lists. It can be a displacement activity (instead of doing) and, at the end of a long day, a reminder of things you set out to do but failed to achieve. Lists need to be artful, focused, constructive, achievable and prioritised. You can’t do everything – but you might want to try the 1-3-5 approach: try to achieve one big goal, three medium goals and five small goals every day. You could even write your list on that basis. Or how about business magnate Warren Buffett’s famously cited ‘not-to-do list’? Buffett claims to write lists of things he wants to achieve, chooses five and then actively ignores the rest.

And write them down on paper – don’t put them on your phone. We all have a tool in our pocket with a capacity for endless lists; a device linked to the cloud that offers unlimited space in which our lists can exist, uncompleted, for eternity. But, according to a recent study at the Dominican University of California, the very act of physically writing things down makes you more likely to do them, as well as making the list easier to control.

Enjoy life

In the age of digital communication, handwritten lists may end up one of the few things left that give us an insight into the daily lives of people like Da Vinci and singer Johnny Cash, another list maker, whose poetic tasks included ‘Kiss June’ (his wife) and ‘Don’t kiss anyone else’. Lists don’t have to be functional. They can help us deal with thoughts and emotions, and remind us to have fun.

My eldest daughter recently left home and, when I was putting the discarded papers she left behind into the recycling, I found one of her lists. It was about the practicalities of starting university and began:

  • Sort railcard
  • Pay deposit for accommodation
  • Buy books

Before leading onto more sociable and pleasurable things:

  • Meet Meg for lunch
  • Check gig times
  • Buy cake and EAT IT!

I smiled and saved the scrap of paper. Not much evidence of a latter-day Da Vinci, but a bit of family history to add to keepsakes of school photos, infant paintings, teenage poems, locks of hair, baby teeth… 

An itemised list of dos and don’ts

To-do list supremo Lizzie Enfield tallies up what she’s learned from the experts.

Have a daily list. This is satisfying because you can see what you’ve achieved every day. l Keep professional and domestic tasks separate. You may not be able to focus on work if you are distracted by ‘Water the house plants’.

Keep lists to a minimum. It’s a bit like the proverbial piece of string but, if you want to achieve, don’t have too many lists of things to do. (But ensure you keep a list of your dreams, too.)

Resist the urge to keep transferring. If you didn’t complete a task on your list, and it needs to be done later, all well and good. But, if you don’t ever seem to get around to it, perhaps it’s not something you really have to do. (Dreams don’t count!)

Be inspired by these achievers: Benjamin Franklin, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Edison, John Lennon and Picasso were all fans of the to-do list – and so are Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres.

Image: Getty

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