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The Scientific Reasons Why Your To-Do List Is Bad For You

To-do lists incentivize all the wrong things when it comes to setting goals that matter.

The Scientific Reasons Why Your To-Do List Is Bad For You
[Photo: Grace Y. Lim/Flickr user Neon Tommy]

You probably already use a “to-do” list, and chances are you’ve at least heard of its close cousin, the “got-done” list. But the two approaches to managing your time and tasks aren’t created equal, and the research is steadily piling up on behalf of the latter. Here’s why you should consider switching to “got-done” lists, and how to get started.

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Intentions, Achievements, Values

Studies have shown that focusing on past achievements can boost our creativity, productivity, and even happiness. And while we probably shouldn’t replace celebrating our wins with reflecting on our intentions, most of us could probably put the two in better balance. That’s where a “got-done” list comes in.

To build one, start by taking an inventory of your values. Organize the areas of your life into a few key categories. Here are mine:

  • Health and wellness
  • Career and impact
  • Family and relationships
  • Finances
  • Community and spirituality

It’s okay if these are approximate, and there’s some overlap–that’s life! Now add a quick note next to each category, sketching out what success looks like or means to you.

This is just a quick exercise, but it’s useful in revealing that many of the actions on our to-do lists–those that govern our daily lives–don’t actually correspond to our main values. And that only exacerbates the feeling of being overwhelmed.

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Whereas to-do lists track deficits–things that need to happen by a certain time–got-done lists make tallies of all the things we do, however small, to fulfill the core areas of our lives.

Fighting “The Overwhelm”

“The Overwhelm” is how Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time describes the feeling many of us experience of having too much to do–which over time erodes our happiness, productivity, and health.

The impact can be especially pronounced on working parents and women. One recent study found that although modern women now have more options and choices in almost every area of their their lives compared to any other period in history, they also have a lower sense of well-being and life satisfaction. This held true no matter the women’s age, marital status, and whether or not they had children.

Social media arguably worsens “the overwhelm.” Research shows that the more time we spend browsing Facebook, the more our personal dissatisfaction swells.

A got-done list is superbly designed to tackle each of these factors.

“I spend a few minutes at the end of the day writing down what I accomplished successfully,” says Nada Arnot, chief marketing officer of Qubed Education. Says Arnot:

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It’s rewarding and empowering to focus on what I did, rather than on what I didn’t do, which can be both stressful and demoralizing. Giving myself a gold star for what I accomplished allows me to free up mental space to unwind and enjoy the evening with my kids, while motivating me to do it all again the next day.

Why Small Wins Matter

Got-done lists needn’t–and in many cases probably shouldn’t–be about crossing off big accomplishments. More often, they should help you celebrate the small ones.

Researchers have found that the experience of making progress is enormously powerful when it comes to our motivation, emotional outlook, and perception of challenges.

“When we think about progress,” write Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, two authors who’ve studied the subject, in Harvard Business Review, “we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously.”

“For the past three years, I’ve been working on the research, product development, design, and merchandising of Sahajan,” a recently launched international Ayurvedic health and beauty brand, says Lisa Mattam.

“Inevitably, there were setbacks and hurdles. This regular habit of reflecting and jotting down what I had done, versus what still needs to happen, helped boost my motivation and spirits.”

That created a sense of momentum, Mattam tells me. “It became a reminder to me that progress was happening, and I should keep going, even if it’s not always on the timeline that I hoped for.”

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Perspective And Progress

Regularly writing down–and checking off–your accomplishments creates a self-reinforcing cycle. It helps you visualize and appreciate the attributes you possess that drive you toward ever bigger goals. Show me a to-do list that made you feel that way.

What’s the basis of this difference? Got-done lists help remind you that big goals can be deceptive; more often than not, they’re simply the aggregation or conclusion of a series of smaller, infinitely more manageable tasks. But if you don’t make it a habit to reflect deliberately on the ones you’ve accomplished, it’s extremely hard to see that.

That shift in perception can also help inoculate you against setback. Got-done lists instill resiliency by placing failures into content. Maybe that one thing you didn’t get done the way you wanted to (or at all) was something you were only able to attempt after getting those 10 other tasks done. Look back at your list, and there they all are–still triumphantly crossed off. You haven’t slipped back to square one at all. Sometimes that reminder can give you the boost you need to make a renewed attempt.

Finally, the five areas of focus you sketched out when you took an inventory of your values offers a stable, holistic lens for keeping the big picture in similar perspective. To-do lists encourage you to fixate on what’s happening in just one corner of your life, making it seem like the only one there is and crowding out the rest. With a got-done list, simply widening the focus can help restore balance, even–and especially–when you’ve got plenty still left to do.

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