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Your brain is hardwired to make lists, and we’ve been doing it for centuries

Although its origins remain unclear, some notable examples of the to-do list illustrate exactly how common this productivity tool has been throughout history.

Your brain is hardwired to make lists, and we’ve been doing it for centuries
[Photo and illustration: wowwa/iStock; Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash]

You may not think your hastily scrawled to-do list has “an irresistible magic,” but Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco would have disagreed.

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Eco held up this simple practice, which humans have conducted for generations, as a paradigm of cultural significance. In an interview with Der Spiegel headlined “‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die,'” Eco explained, “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists.”

Whether you subscribe to Eco’s erudite explanation or just enjoy the process of writing down an account of tasks and goals to be met, the to-do list has become a de facto measure of productivity. Although its origins remain obscured by time, some notable examples of the to-do list illustrate exactly how common this productivity tool has been throughout history.

Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with creating the first résumé (or at least commissioning a professional writer to do so for him). He was also a fan of the humble to-do list. One such list includes lofty tasks that would put many modern lists to shame:

  • [Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
  • Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.
  • Draw Milan
  • Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • [Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese

Flash forward a couple of centuries and you’ll find one of early America’s own Renaissance men busying himself with ambitious goals and list making to achieve them. Benjamin Franklin put forth a to-do list in 1791 with such mundane tasks as wash, work, read, work, put things in their places. But rather than simply check off the items and call it a day, Franklin employed a higher level of assessing his overall productivity. His measure was to start the day by asking what good he could do and at the end of the day evaluate based on what was accomplished.

Along the way, there have been other notable to-do list makers.

It’s fascinating, for instance, to juxtapose a list created by a 30-year old Woody Guthrie in 1942 with da Vinci’s above at the same age. The tasks on Guthrie’s list include “work more and better, wash teeth if any, write a song a day, learn people better, stay glad, and help win war—beat fascism.”

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And for all John Lennon’s lyrics about imagining a better world, his to-do list from May 22, 1980—about seven months before his death—paints a vignette of quotidian concerns. The 11 points include directives to his personal valet: “H.B.O. guy coming between 3-5. BE THERE. (the other guy didn’t know what was wrong.), Photos in Books (do it while you wait for H.B.O.),” and books he wanted to read such as Susanne Patch’s book about the Hope Diamond and Margaret Trudeau’s memoir.

Our obsession with productivity has spawned an entire industry around getting our lists more organized, edited, and effectively prioritized. The reason this practice has persisted is that our brains are predisposed to nudge us to complete unfinished tasks—but maybe not the way you think. It’s because of something called the Zeigarnik effect.

Originally it was regarded as the brain function responsible for remembering details about uncompleted tasks. But new research explained by New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength says that it works when our unconscious mind pushes our conscious mind to make a plan.

Once a plan of action is in place, a feeling of accomplishment can set in, whether or not the goal is ever reached. That feeling may not be quite as satisfying as physically drawing a line through an item or checking a box—or stepping back to survey a completed drawing of a city like da Vinci—but it’s enough gratification to assure we’ll return to making a list that will help us achieve more tomorrow.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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