Why do we continue to not only use - but to LOVE - our never-ending lists even though they can make us feel miserable if we leave unfinished tasks on them?
It's because there is something comforting that feels good as we cross that task off and we get that "happy high" when we accomplish something that keeps us coming back for more.
We can't seem to get rid of them and I love them. Others may disagree with me because even though we like adding new things to our lists, not being able to complete them is frustrating.
I blame priority. It seems whenever we start making a list we need to put things in order of priority. Well, I throw priority out the door.
That may shock many but there are so many things to juggle, the philosophy I have is to start anywhere.
The Imperfect Art of Priority
Priority is an illusion. The problem with priority is if we think everything is a priority nothing is. We can add a lot of things to our list but it's difficult to say what the priority is.
There are organizers and lists out there that have complicated numbering systems that assign a priority to an item, what we need to figure out is what's important to us and how to align that with any to-do list we put together.
The approach I take is write down what I need to get done today to best accomplish who I want to be and how that supports my goals overall.
For example here are some things I want to do:
Read 20 minutes a day
Post 2 thoughts on LinkedIn daily
Send invites to 10 people to join my network
I read because I want to become more informed, become a better writer, a better thinker, and if I don't read at least 20 minutes a day that won't happen.
I work out every day because I want to become healthier. If my mind and body are strong it's easier for me to accomplish the other things on my list.
Don't get stuck on what the priority is. Focus on what is important and what you want to accomplish.
Making it Easy
Once we figure out what's important make the list. Having a list we can check off creates the feeling of offloading. When you check something off there is an actual release of dopamine in your brain creating that sense of relief and happiness.
One of the easiest ways to stay on task is to track what you do.
Jerry Seinfeld was famously asked by a young comic Brad Isaac if he had "any tips for a young comic" Here is how Seinfeld responded.
"He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
After a few days, you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
I like what he said, "You'll like seeing the chain." The fact that we track what we are doing and see forward progress in our goals will make it easier for us to repeat the process over and over till that habit becomes automatic and we have successfully completed our goal.
James Clear suggests three ways to make doing a checklist easier
#1 Make it obvious
Research shows that when people track their progress on any goal or task they are trying to complete they are more likely to improve or obtain the goal than if they don't.
#2 Make it attractive
It's easy to feel down when we don't complete what we set out to. We all have bad days. So make it attractive by celebrating any progress you've made by writing it down.
#3 Make it satisfying
It is satisfying when we complete a task. This can be its own kind of reward. When there is a visual representation, whether that is crossing an item off, putting an X on a calendar, or making a journal entry. It feels good because you can see progress being made just by the string of marks on a piece of paper.
There was a World Health Organization study done between October 2007 and September 2008 that studied mortality rates in hospitals where checklists were used and not used. It found the death rate was 1.5% before the checklist was introduced and declined to 0.8% afterward
Using a checklist decreased the mortality rate by almost half. The point here is using a to-do list no matter how you organize it increases your rate of success just by having one.
How to start a checklist
Write down things that need to get done and ask "What are the things that are important I need to do regularly.
Pick out 3-5 you want to focus on
Focus on getting one thing done and then moving to the next (one thing done method)
Write them on a piece of paper (I like to write them down on a piece of paper because it's tangible and when I cross it off I know it gets done.)
Track them every day
Checklists do not need to be complicated. There are lots of ways to do a checklist. I have found the easiest way for me is the above method I find I get more done and it saves me more time in general to do other things.
You may find something that works better for you, so you do you.
I think with any process that helps you become more productive there are positive side effects in this case creating a to-do checklist will help you:
Eliminates tasks - by focusing on key ones you are able to eliminate others
Focuses on creating habits - by picking 3-5 and focusing there its easy to develop good habits
Decreases stress - instead of by priority you have the option to pick what works for you
More opportunities - With certain tasks eliminated more opportunities to focus on
We often think in order to make progress in life and on our goals we have to make this herculean effort to get where we want to be. And all we really need is to dedicate our time to the small manageable tasks that create mastery.
Making a checklist is a small and manageable way to accomplish just that.