If you have a love-hate relationship with lists of all kinds, you aren’t alone. On one hand, making a list–whether it’s a grocery list or a to-do list–gives you a single place to keep all your priorities front and center. But that same list can also be a source of anxiety. The longer it gets, the more you may find yourself avoiding it, knowing that the effort it’ll take to cross everything off is going to be considerable.
But as it turns out, you’ll be much more productive if you actually read your to-do list regularly–even if you don’t manage to finish every single item that’s on it. Here’s why.
Helping Your Brain See Opportunities
The human brain is very good at what psychologists refer to as “opportunistic planning.” What this means is that when you have a goal that you’re actively trying to achieve, you’re much more likely to notice things in your world that will help you reach that goal. Reading over your to-do list helps remind you what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place. That much is obvious.
Less obvious is the way this awareness primes your mind to problem-solve. If you’re familiar with what you need to get done, then when you bump into a key resource who can help you complete a task, you’ll immediately connect that person to whatever you’re trying to do. As a result, you can successfully knock items off your agenda even when you didn’t expect to accomplish them.
This is especially helpful for delegating parts of complicated tasks. It’s often helpful to get input from your colleagues over the course of a challenging project. But once you sit down to chip away at it, it can feel like a hassle to reach out to other people; it’s easier to just power through the task in front of you, even when you know that someone else’s work or input might improve the outcome. If you’re already thinking about the tasks on your list, though, since you read through it regularly, you’re more likely to be able to preempt this by reaching out to people ahead of time.
And even when you forget to do that, if you randomly bump into a colleague whose assistance could help you out, you’ll know automatically how to enlist their help.
Using Transitional Time To Puzzle Over Problems
That’s not the only way that continuously reading over your to-do list can keep you productive.
Your day probably has a lot of transition time from one event to another. For example, I have two offices on the University of Texas campus that are about a 10-minute walk apart. I can’t do any writing when I go from one to another. Burying my head in my phone is an option–but a dangerous one given all the people walking, biking, and skating around campus. If I already know which tasks I’m trying to complete, though, I can spend a few minutes mentally working through them as I walk. I routinely outline articles like this one on walks between meetings. You can only take advantage of these transitions if you have a clear sense of your unfinished tasks.
What’s more, your schedule probably involves events that start on the hour or half-hour, but the events don’t always fit the time allotted. If you’re in a meeting that was budgeted for an hour, but it only runs for 45 minutes, there are 15 minutes that suddenly appear in your schedule. It’s natural to use that time to check your email, but email might not be the most important thing you have to do. You could check your to-do list at that point, but once you read it over and reprioritize what’s on it, you’ve probably wasted half of this newfound time block.
But if you already know what you need to do because you glance over your to-do list habitually over the course of your workday, you’re in a much better position to immediately jump on something important.
So don’t hide your own to-do list from yourself because the sight of it stresses you out. The more intimately you know what still needs to get done, the better positioned you’ll be to actually do it.