"Create to-do list." Tick!
My life is pinched and sliced into series of lists, printed neatly in Muji notebooks with pretty pens and good intentions or punched unsleepingly into iPhone notes at 3am. I have been known to create a Google Sheet to-do list and conditionally format it to make the little boxes go green when I complete them. Spreadsheet validation? Heart eyes.
In the first week of January 2022 it was raining sheets of articles heralding the organisational joy of a to-do list. So much of the 'new year new you' content that pops up in January is a glorified to-do list in itself. Think: "100 things to do, think and say to make yourself a better person in 2022." Don't get me wrong, I eat it up like everyone else, mentally chronicling each item I have failed to do thus far, each unticked box a small kick in the ribs. As Liana Sayer, the director of the University of Maryland’s Time Use Laboratory, said in 2021, it may seem like you are busier than ever right now because you have "feelings that you have to 'be the best you can be' in all of the roles, or you’ve failed as a person".
Among my chronically hectic and impressive friends, the long and winding to-do list has unconsciously become a kind of ribbon of pride; an indicator of success. In the first week of January, in one WhatsApp group, we even shared pictures of our January lists in a weird kind of busyness measuring contest. (My list was not the longest, I did not 'win', thus missing out on the personal fist bump that comes from mutually acknowledging you have more on your plate than anyone else and are therefore a 'better person'.) Shamefully, I also remember a sad time in a previous job where I actually sent someone my to-do list as a kind of status symbol, or proof that I was overstretched. Yikes.
The benefits of to-do lists are often written about. Apparently, to-do lists help you step out of the normal flow of things and can even help your memory. As social psychologists Roy Baumeister and E J Masicampo found in a 2011 study: "Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits." Writing a to-do list is even suggested by the charity Mind as a potential stress-relieving technique, in guidelines first published in 2015. It seems, then, that to-do lists in themselves are no bad thing.
Here's the rub: I don't think I have ever actually completed one – and this makes me feel shitty. I write the list to feign a sense of control in the short term, alongside a sense of personal validation that I'm important and busy, before it mocks me with its incompleteness and I move swiftly on to writing the next, to feel momentarily in control and important again. A new to-buy list, to-read list, to-clean list, to-achieve list, to-feel list. All with harsh, red boxes next to each row on the spreadsheet.
Unlike Martha Stewart, who apparently swears by list-writing, all these incomplete lists make me, ehum, listless. Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik was one of the first to look into list-making. Her 1927 study found that people are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than finished ones, which has been dubbed 'the Zeigarnik effect' and is today often associated with productivity techniques. But if we’re remembering the unfinished tasks more, perfectionists might also be punishing ourselves for our failure to complete them. What's more, when you’ve got five or six different lists on the go, tabulating all aspects of your life, and so much of your sense of personal value is tied up in them, what does failing to complete the list do to our feelings of self-worth?
In a kind of new year's irresolution, I tried ditching to-do lists altogether. I wanted to discover if my many long, unticked lists were distracting from all the stuff I have actually achieved and completed, in a form of productivity dysmorphia. Aside from all this, I was curious to know, could I survive without them?
The answer to the latter is, of course, yes. Deleting my existing to-do lists wasn't the freeing experience you might think. It was actually a non-event, because I am used to deleting or trying to ignore them. In my first list-free week of January 2022 I completed all my tasks in pretty much the same way that I would have done with the lists – my friends got texted back, my dog got walked, my meetings were attended, my projects got filed at work, my house stayed clean(ish).
By deleting all my to-do lists, I realised that the reason I was creating them in the first place was not organisational: I am not an overly disorganised person naturally. I was creating so many lists to stem anxiety and feel momentarily in control – to tell myself I was making progress. It was the urge to create new ones that required restraint – like breaking a habit. This is particularly hard when digital organisation tools and apps like Asana, Trello and Monday advertise in front of every single YouTube video (just me?). Target audience reached, clearly.
Much has been said about millennials' love of lists. Back in 2015, 94% of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments (compared with 84% of Boomers and 81% of Gen X). This is evidenced in the natural inclination of my generational peers to click on stories written in list format. As a content consumer existing in the 2010s and 20s, I have read more listicles than I’d care to admit; as a writer, I have also penned a fair few of them. In hindsight, all this probably does is create a universe of lists, an echo chamber that perpetuates a sense that ticking off the next, the next, the next thing is the way to achieve self-worth.
Maybe my problem was that I have been approaching all my to-do lists wrong. Maybe my lists are just too long, too ambitious, too many. Field-leader in the art of list-writing, David Allen (author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity), thinks the answer to 'bad' list-making is to be more detailed. Instead of writing 'call mum', write why you're calling or when you should do it. But as he said in a 2017 interview with The Guardian, like me, he often leaves lists uncompleted. He said: "I found an old diary the other day from six years ago, and there was something in there that I still haven’t done." But as the article implies, he has also written loads of books and is very successful, so the list-making must be working, right?
I'm not so sure that's the case for someone like me, who uses list-making purely as an anxiety reduction tool. If the non-completion of said lists is actually building more stress, they're not being effective. If I swapped the time I used up making endless lists with genuine downtime – going for a walk, sleeping, making a cup of tea, taking a bath – I’d probably get a lot more done in actual 'work' time. Going one step further, if I shift my internal barometer away from productivity altogether and towards self-care, the cycle might break.
If you're like me and you've been hiding behind a curtain of lists, what's the alternative? Even to-do list alternatives involve lists. There are not-to-do lists, done lists, 123 lists, bullet journalling. Each has its virtues. But for someone who has been too reliant on this one technique, my list-free week has been genuinely enlightening. My takeaways? If you are creating lists for the sake of organisation and it's working for you, then keep at it. But if, like me, you are creating lists to quell your anxiety and your anxiety is not being stemmed, or to feel important because your self-worth is tied up in productivity, it's probably worth getting to the bottom of that. As chartered social psychologist Dr Gary Wood told me recently: "First, you need to understand the trigger." My new thing for 2022? Don't create any more to-do lists. Tick!