The psychology behind the humble to-do list

It’s a fascinating topic, and one that has recently received some scientific attention. It all started with David Allen’s revolutionary book, “Getting Things Done” (GTD), which proposed a system that involved writing everything down and sorting it effectively. And now, after a decade, scientific research has finally caught up, revealing why this popular system is so effective.

The key to the GTD system lies in the act of planning, which reduces the burden on our poor, overworked brains. You see, our minds struggle to hold a mental list of all the things we have to do, and this burden can impede our ability to be effective. But by writing everything down and organizing it effectively, we can free up our minds for more important things.

Tom Stafford, writing in his BBC Future column, explores this idea further. According to Allen, effective filing involves a system with three parts: an archive for stuff we might need one day, a current task list, and a “tickler file” of 43 folders for reminders of things to do. The current task list is especially important because it defines each task by the next action needed to progress it. This simple idea is remarkably effective in helping us overcome the inertia that can keep us from completing our tasks.


But what’s the psychology behind this?

Well, Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency of our minds to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. They discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task, because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. But when they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task, those people were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the task unfinished.


Our attention has a limited capacity.

The GTD system frees up the attention used to keep track of our mental to-do list and acts as a plan for how we will do things, freeing our minds for more effective uses. And while the most productive people rarely use to-do lists, it’s clear that they can be a valuable tool for those of us looking to be more efficient and effective.


So there you have it. The psychology of the to-do list is a fascinating subject, and one that can help us all be more productive and effective in our daily lives.