Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/To-do lists

To-do lists:
Are to-do lists a good idea? What are their pros and cons? How can they be used effectively?


Figure 1. A scene of someone checking off their to-do list

Research shows that writing down what needs to be done unburdens the brain, making a person more productive (Schrager, 2022). This is where to-do lists come in handy, taking an idea and putting it down in on paper, or even digitally, has been shown to decrease anxiety, and completing a task and crossing off a list provides a sense of satisfaction (Schrager, 2022). The Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to for people to remember incomplete tasks, rather than those that have been completed (Savitsky et al., 1997). This is proven in Scullin et al. (2018) study where people struggle to fall asleep as they are worrying about the incomplete tasks on their do-to list.

The purpose of this chapter is to gain a deeper insight into whether to-do lists are a good idea, their pros and cons, and how they can be used effectively. To-do lists are ubiquitous, whether used digitally, with paper or even with sticky notes and can be used to remind users to engage in the tasks written down. But do they do more harm than good? Let's find out.

Focus questions:
  • Are to-do lists a good idea?
  • What are their pros and cons?
  • How can they be used effectively?

What are to-do lists?Edit

Figure 2. A to-do list

Studies have shown that to-do lists are the most popular personal management information tools (Gil & Ratnakar, 2008). To-do lists are external artefacts that augment human condition in that they serve as memory enhancers by reminding people of what needs to be done (Gill & Ratnakar, 2008). To-do lists have been proven effective in many studies, but there is always a question of "can they be even more helpful?". There are many different ways to-do lists can be designed, this includes paper, using an app, calendar blocking (or time blocking), and dividing up to-do lists into more achievable lists. Ultimately they are a straightforward and applicable method for people to perform set tasks quickly and effectively. Motivation is an important aspect for to-do lists as it is through motivation that the needs of different tasks can be handled and tackled purposely.

Are to-do lists a good idea?Edit

To-do lists come in many forms, and whilst each has its own positives and negatives, it really comes down to what you like. So very generally speaking, here are some pros and cons of to-do lists.

Pros of to-do listsEdit

  • Writing a list of what needs to be done in the upcoming days can lessen difficultly[spelling?] falling asleep
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Support goal accomplishment or task completion
  • Useful for fostering daily goal planning and achievement orientation
  • Provide structure
  • Create order
  • Provides accountability


Cons of to-do listsEdit

  • Using paper to-do lists can be time consuming
  • If there are items on a to-do list that have a deadline, using paper will not be effective unless it is always being consulted
  • Increased self-criticism if not all tasks are completed
  • Stress from incomplete tasks
  • Do not take into consideration how long a task will take
  • Overwhelming if there are too many tasks to complete
  • Procrastination over the harder tasks
  • Lack of elaboration
  • Never ending, as more tasks can be added throughout the day


One study compared two different [what?] methods to see if one was more effective or preferable (Burke et al., 2014). They did this by getting a group of university students to alternate between an eight-step goal-oriented mental imagery technique or a to-do list technique. Mental imagery research has revealed that unconscious activation of goal directed behaviour can be evoked (Burke et al., 2014). The eight-step techniques included the following: goal setting, relaxation, setting the frame, imagery/verbalisation of key outcomes, generation of positive affect, intensification/vividness, nonverbal suggestion for positive expectancy, and a concluding commitment. It was found that whilst simple to-do lists are a useful tool for fostering a daily goal, mental imagery of successful attainment of daily foals integrates qualities of positive expectancy and positive affect, but lacks the ability to accommodate a large number of tasks, which then reduces task focus (Burke et al., 2014)[for example?]. Proving that the best solution could be a combination of the two[grammar?].

To-do lists can be effective, depending on how they're used. It could be considered best to use different forms in conjunction with another. For example, writing down tasks with no deadline on paper, but also using an app or calendar for tasks with deadlines. Spreading tasks across two lists may seem mundane but, it can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed having to complete too many tasks. The combination of different forms of to-do lists and other techniques has also been effective.[factual?]

How can to-do lists be used effectively?Edit

There are many ways a to-do list can be used. These include, writing it down on a piece of paper, creating an electronic list or using a designated app. Because there are so many ways, it can take some experimenting to find the right method that works. But once the right system is found, the following are tips for an effective to-do list:

  • Make more than one list
  • Use SMART goals
  • Limit the number of tasks on your daily list to what you can reasonably accomplish
  • Find balance


Figure 3. SMART Goals

Having too many things on a to-do list can be overwhelming. By having more than one list, you can separate what you need to do in more manageable list. SMART goals should be:

  • Specific: well defined and clear
  • Measurable: with specific criteria that measures your progress toward the accomplishment of the goal
  • Attainable: attainable, and not impossible to achieve
  • Relevant: within reach, realistic, and relevant to a life goal
  • Timely: with a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target end date.

There are only so many hours in a day, [grammar?] limiting the number of tasks on a to-do list will ensure that intrusive thoughts due to not completing the list, will not become overwhelming. If all of the items on a to-do list are not completed, it is still possible to move the unfinished items to tomorrows[grammar?] to-do list. To find balance on a to-do list, a person will need to lean[spelling?] how to say 'no' to others requesting help and focus on the most important tasks. Whilst challenging, saying no is important as it allows you to be able to focus on what would be important for your career goals (Schrager & Sadowski, 2016).

Should you say "yes" or "no"?

  • Does the request fit with your career goals?
  • Would the work use your skills?
  • What is the long-term benefit of this work? Could it lead to other work that is more closely related to your goals?
  • What is the timing of this work? Does it need to be done within a week, a month, or can it be done more long term when you may have more time?
  • Can you be involved in part of the work but not all?
  • Are you able to give up another responsibility in order to take on the new request?
  • Is the requestor someone who is your supervisor or who can influence your career?
  • Would saying "no" jeopardize other parts of your job or career goals?

Figure 4. Eisenhower Matrix

Eisenhower matrixEdit

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." (Bast, 2016)

The Eisenhower matrix is an important tool for prioritisation, so that you are able to differentiate between tasks that are important and those that are urgent (Bast, 2016). It is made up of four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1 - urgent and important
  • Quadrant 2 - important and NOT urgent
  • Quadrant 3 - urgent and NOT important
  • Quadrant 4 - NOT urgent and NOT important

Tasks that can be placed in to quadrant 1 include assignment deadlines, chores, and house fires. These tasks can be avoided with planning and organisation, for example, working on assignments regularly, creating a schedule for chores and taking precautions to prevent house fires. In other words, try to spend as little time as possible on these tasks. Quadrant 2 includes tasks like weekly and long term planning, studying, and developing a skill to be completed within a deadline. If a task can be done quickly, it is best to do it now rather than scheduling it, but if it cannot be done quickly, or, if there are more urgent things to do, schedule it. It is best to complete the tasks in quadrant 2 before they become urgent and move to quadrant 1, try to spend most of your time on these tasks. Quadrant 3 includes emails, phone calls, and text messages. It is best to schedule these types of tasks, rather than having to frequently check emails throughout the day. Spending as little time as possible on these tasks is key. Tasks that belong in quadrant 4 include video games, watching TV, and social media, [grammar?] these tasks are to be eliminated.

When planning to-do lists, referring back to the Eisenhower matrix can be helpful. Rather than seeing what needs to be done in list form where it is more of a 'brain dump' page, being able to notice and prioritise tasks can help with how much will get done.[grammar?]

Is there really 'one' best method to choose from?Edit

There are many different types of to-do lists, electronic (using an app, or even a calendar), mental imagery, and of course, paper. But does one of these methods rank above them all? The short answer is no, the longer answer, it really depends on what method suits you. It could be the best option to use both paper and electronic forms of to-do lists together. It is best to experiment with different styles of to-do lists and find exactly what works for you, it is really dependent on what it is you are trying to accomplish.[factual?]


To-do lists are an effective tool to manage motivation and creativity, and are the most popular personal management tool. Whilst there may be an equal amount of positive and negatives for to-do lists, they are still a good idea to use. By writing down what needs to be done, it can reduce stress and help with knowing exactly what needs to be done throughout the day, making someone more productive (Schrager, 2022). The correct approach to to-do lists is key. Whilst this may take some time, using SMART goals and implementing the Eisenhower matrix is effective. They both provide approaches that are effective for sorting out a to-do list to know what needs to be done and when by. This is also true for making more than one list, and finding balance. Implementing these strategies will ensure that your to-do list is effective. If you were wanting to know if electronic or paper to-do lists fared better than the other, it really comes down to what you like and what suits you, it is all about experimenting[grammar?].

See alsoEdit


Bast, F. (2016, 2016/01/01). Crux of time management for students. Resonance, 21(1), 71–88.

Burke, A., Shanahan, C., & Herlambang, E. (2014, 2014/03/01). An Exploratory Study Comparing Goal-Oriented Mental Imagery with Daily To-Do Lists: Supporting College Student Success. Current Psychology, 33(1), 20–34.

Fellmann, M., Lambusch, F., & Dehne, M. (2020). Towards Intelligent Personal Task and Time Management: Requirements and Opportunities for Advanced To-do Lists.

Gil, Y., & Ratnakar, V. (2008). Towards intelligent assistance for to-do lists Proceedings of the 13th international conference on Intelligent user interfaces, Gran Canaria, Spain.

Savitsky, K., Medvec, V. H., & Gilovich, T. (1997). Remembering and Regretting: The Zeigarnik Effect and the Cognitive Availability of Regrettable Actions and Inactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(3), 248–257.

Schrager, S., & Sadowski, E. (2016). Getting More Done: Strategies to Increase Scholarly Productivity. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 8(1), 10–13.

Schrager, S. B. (2022). Improving Time Management Through Modern-Day To-Do Lists. Family practice management, 29(1), 5–5.

Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 139–146.

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