6 Secrets Of Super Productive To-Do Lists

While it may appear simple, the to-do list is a many-splendored thing. Here are half a dozen ways to make yours splendid.

Just as there’s a difference between typing and writing, convulsing and dancing, and noshing and tasting, there’s a difference between emailing yourself about every project you’re worrying about and making an effective, actionable, stress-reducing to-do list.


It’s a matter of cultivating our taste for productivity, appreciating the nuance of getting your day well done. And Divya Pahwa at the ooomf blog has done some homework on the high-brow hustle–let’s dive into it below.

1) Productivity is closing loops

You know that feeling when you hear a song during the morning and it stays in your head all day–until, perhaps, you hear it played to the end? That icky open-loop feeling is what psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect, Pahwa notes.

“Our mind will remain fixated on an unfinished task, causing our mental and physical health to suffer too,” she writes. “Upon completion we are freed from the burden of this task.”


Some prescient app makers have taken this into account, allowing you to offload your I-need-do-this-later feeling into your phone–it was one of the key insights that shaped Mailbox, as CEO Gentry Underwood explained to us earlier this year.

2) Don’t simulate your day

But Pahwa has bad news for us too: Procrastination researcher (that’s a thing!) Tim Pychyl has found that we tend to trick ourselves with the act of listing. We feel like we’ve accomplished something–look, a list!–without actually doing anything.

It’s kind of how like if you read The Great Gatsby you feel like you’ve lived through the Jazz Age without leaving your living room. By writing out a super-detailed to-do list, you’ve simulated your daily doing. So your brain is cruelly satisfied, but your work is left undone.


3) Mind your mental energy

Simulating your productivity would be fine–if you had unlimited energy. But we don’t: The mental energy we have cycles throughout the day, and every time we make a decision, we erode those energy levels, ending up with decision fatigue, that sense of ugh-I-can’t-do-anything.

So if you write a long list of vague to-dos, you’ll end up exhausted and undone.

4) Condense your list

Citing our emphatically finite stores of daily energy, Pahwa recommends listing three tasks for a given day and getting those done. We’d like to expand on that.


As Getting Things Done author David Allen recently explained, prioritization governs proper productivity. So our lists should be similarly prioritized.

Our favorite method is the 1-3-5 Rule:

…. assume that on any given day you can accomplish one big mission, three medium tasks, and five small things. Get those done as best you can. Then, as your workday concludes (which might be when you’re journaling in bed), make the next day’s 1-3-5. Like laying out your clothes the night before, this defuses the groggy tension of early morning decision making, which we all suck at.

5) Use your (analog) materials!

If we want to get focused, one old and obvious hack is to first go analog. What’s nice about a notebook and a pen is that your friends and colleagues can’t assault you with cat videos and humblebrags as you organize your day, unlike anything connected to the Internet.


Pahwa goes a step further and recommends using the humble notecard and Post-it note. Why? Because if you’re making short, crisp lists, then you should use a short, crisp writing medium. The space, we know, shapes the work.

6) Make sure your to-dos are actions

Every to-do should include a verb–otherwise you won’t do it.

Pahwa’s take:


… instead of “find movers” try “call mom and ask her to suggest a mover.’” Or “start and finish research for Tim” try “Do a journal article search using the terms: XYZ.”

So what we need to do with any big project is de-tangle what the most immediate step in getting it done is. There’s a name for this skill: process thinking, which is a must-have for any project team.

So next on our to-do: study process thinking.

Hat tip: ooomf


[Image: Flickr user Adrien Leguay]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.


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