to do
Personal Productivity, Productivity & Lifestyle

The Power of Writing To-Do Lists (part 2)

Last week on the blog, I wrote about how the Zeigarnik effect, our brain’s tendency to remind us about unfinished tasks until we have created an action plan on how to accomplish those tasks. As a quick review of what we discussed last time:

The Zeigarnik effect describes how if you start a project and then do not finish it, your brain will automatically send you intrusive thoughts about your original goal… The problem is, even if you no longer want the reminders, they can be hard to get rid of.

Researchers Masicampo and Baumeister have been conducting studies on how to use the Zeigarnik effect to increase your productivity, versus letting it slow you down.

They said:

Committing to a specific plan for a goal may…free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended–allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease–and is resumed at the specified later time.

Thus, I concluded that one way to harness the Zeigarnik effect to your power is by using to-do lists.

To-do lists are tools that can help maximize your productivity by keeping you organized and focused. For bonus points, every time you finish a task and check it off, to-do lists insure that you enjoy a rewarding dose of dopamine.

Once you decide to start writing to-lists, you will find an overwhelming amount of methods. Ultimately, you must find or create the best type of list for your personality and lifestyle. However, I thought it would be helpful to outline some of the basic methods people have come up with:

Big Picture Down

In the big picture down method, you create lists of long term goals (new year’s resolutions anyone?) and then go about creating smaller objectives to help you accomplish your long term goals. Once you have your objectives set, you can break them down further into weekly and daily tasks.

Blogger Abby Lawson describes this method thoroughly on her blogpost about lists. She even provides a helpful visual:


She seems to think that creating yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily lists is a bit obsessive. I would venture to say that it isn’t enough! When I think of the top down approach, I expand it from yearly resolutions to life long dreams/goals and work down from there.

I love this method because it helps me to connect all the mundane activities of my daily life to my long term goals and life-long dreams.

For yearly goals, it helps to divide resolutions into categories (health, work, family, etc.) with specific measurable achievements.

At the beginning of each month you can use your yearly goals to plan which projects you want to focus on. Once you know what you want to focus on for the month, you can divide your projects into weeks and then create daily to-do lists with smaller tasks that have clear instructions attached to them.

Little Things Up

I consider David Allen’s famed Getting Things Done method/movement to be a bottom up vs. top down approach. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people swear by Allen’s comprehensive approach. It is too complicated for me to explain here, but the basic lists that a GTD follower will create are as follows:

  1. In – This is where you capture ideas and to-dos that come up suddenly.
  2. Next action – This is your main list, an outline of all the things you want to do as soon-as-possible.
  3. Waiting – This is the list that depends on other people. For example, you send an email to start a project, but before you can move onto the next step, you have to wait to get a response from your colleague.
  4. Project – A project is an objective that requires more than one action from your other lists. Having larger projects in mind when creating your next-action lists will help you to stay focused on your goals.
  5. Someday/maybe list – These are your dreams, the things you may or may not ever do. When your project list begins to dwindle, you can head to your someday/maybe list to replenish it.

GTD encompasses much more than these lists. If you are interested in learning more, offers a simple guide as does lifehacker. The point is that with GTD and other similar techniques, you focus on smaller tasks but connect them to larger projects in order to stay focused.

Simplified Version of GTD

As popular and effective as GTD is, many consider it extremely complicated and time-consuming. However, I believe that GTD presents guidelines, principles, and ideas. You don’t have to follow Allen’s every breath for it to work. Use the principles and create a system that works for you!

That is why I found Gina Tripani’s simplified version of GTD so compelling. Here is an example of how she took what she learned from following GTD and turned it into a personalized program that is perfect for her own needs:

Her basic premise is: “make three lists, revise them daily and weekly”.

Tripani focuses on the next-action list, the project list, and the someday/maybe list. From a day to day basis she uses just her next-action list, revising it as the day goes on. At the end of each week she spends 20 minutes to open all three lists and trim, shuffle, and edit them.

Work Happy Now

Work Happy Now offers an interesting method to effective time management. They advocate for monthly and daily to-do lists. However, they allocate only one specific project to each day, with three smaller tasks that will help accomplish the larger project. That seems pretty simple, but they claim focusing on one big project is a realistic and effective goal that allows you the time you need for emails, calls, unexpected problems, and fun stuff.

They also introduced me to the brilliant idea of adding rewards to larger to-do list items. Is there one project that looms over your list? Why don’t you write “Ben and Jerry’s” or “ping pong break” right next to it, to remind you of the treat you will give yourself when the dreaded task is accomplished.


I haven’t tried this idea yet, and I’ll admit I am a bit skeptical. However, the simplicity is appealing. Each day assume that you can accomplish one bigger task, three medium tasks, and five smaller tasks. Then narrow your to-do list down to those nine items.

Forget it kid

The Harvard Business Review seems to think that to-do lists are a waste of time. They claim that they offer too much choice, not enough context, and are unfair in that you receive the same dopamine high for checking off a five minute task that you do for a three hour task. The result is that you spend too much time trying to figure out what to do and tend to put off less pleasant tasks.

I recognize that these are all legitimate problems, however in my experience I haven’t been too bothered by them. For one thing, despite the fact that on a list there is no distinction between difficult and easy tasks, I believe my brain automatically compensates and rewards me with a deeper sense of accomplishment for the harder tasks. If, however, these hindrances seem to check with your experience, you may want to try using schedules instead of to-do lists. Research into the Zeigarnik effect has shown that adding specific times to to-dos does help to appease the brain.


This is just a sampler of the countless methods available to choose from. The main point is, you need to find a way to plan your tasks and get them off your mind. Your personal list writing plan may be a conglomeration of two or three of the strategies I listed above or it may be a new technique completely unique to you.

My father is one who read the entire GTD book and set himself to follow the program religiously. However, he soon realized that he was organizing things in a way that was so complicated that it required more time than it was worth. One of his friends accused him of being “too organized to get anything done.” He started simplifying his methods and catering them to his own needs, versus trying to follow a set regimen.

Now he still uses digital and physical inboxes, which he makes sure to leave emptied at the end of each day. He uses a calendar app to keep track of all the events coming up. And he uses Apple reminders to create to-do lists, with his daily tasks set to automatically recur. At the beginning of each day he spends a few minutes to manicure his calendar and to-do list into a perfect list for that day. It is simple and it works for him.

Find what works for you and use it. However, whatever your plan is, try to keep it simple enough that it isn’t distracting you from getting things done or taking too much of your time. If your planning is stressing you out or distracting you, it is probably not the right method. Experiment and personalize until you find your perfect list. Once you find it, you will discover that it is nothing short of a productivity super power.

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