‘To do’ or ‘not to do’ that is the question – the beauty of the list

Is there anything more satisfying than the sight of a completed ‘to-do’ list?

Whether you choose to tick off completed tasks, cross out (with ruler or freehand) or swipe with a neon highlighter, the effect is often one of minor but justified pride and the delight of having possibly earned a self-appointed ‘reward’ in return for your effort and application.

But are to-do lists ever a bad thing? For all the obvious joy they bring do they also have a dark side?

To-do lists are a favourite of ours here at Maier – although on closer inspection you’d find we all use them in slightly different ways.

For those of us towards the ‘J’ end of the Myers Briggs scale (planned, scheduled, ordered) lists are date stamped, colour-coded and detailed.

Other Maier team members of the ‘P’ variety (spontaneous, adventurous, enterprising) have lists that are more organic in nature, running easily from day to day or week to week, a conscious stream of thoughts and activities but always with space to add or divert.

Neither is right or wrong, very rarely do we ever ‘drop the proverbial ball’ and given the complexity and scale of the work we’re involved in we manage to flow actions and tasks seamlessly between us – even in the remote (or now semi remote) world we continue to operate in.

For many the primary, and sometimes only, purpose of a to-do list is to counteract cognitive overload. Especially so in recent months with work and home life blurring into one, the need to remember what needs to be done, by when and by whom has become even more of necessity.

On days where very little has seemed to go to plan, when ‘curved balls’ have hit us from every angle – referring back to the trusted to-do list can help to establish a much needed sense of progression and/or achievement. It may not have been the day you planned but it certainly won’t have been wasted.

The reshuffling and reassigning of to-do actions as a result can help us to prioritise and de-prioritise – or even prompt us to delegate more. Now there’s an idea worth thinking about!

Where to-do lists can be limiting is if we begin mindlessly working down them in order – regardless of what’s important and what’s urgent.

Subconsciously (or maybe even consciously at times!) we may also be procrastinating on tasks that are less appealing in favour of menial, smaller jobs – guaranteed to give us a hit of endorphin – a ‘false positive’ if you like, leaving us to dig deep towards the end of the day when the extra energy we need is least likely to be available.

Famed for their anxiety reducing effects, the to-do lists have long been seen as a way to offload what’s causing us stress in a way that enables us to see a route through whatever big, hairy, audacious goal or task might be paralysing us.

But the sight of everything that needs to done in all its stark reality can sometimes be so overwhelming that it actually has the opposite effect.

And this is when we need to throw some real objectivity at things; is there a deadline and if so is there movement on that, am I striving for perfection and/or being unrealistic about what’s actually needed and/or achievable, does that big task need breaking down into smaller parts, what are my ‘must-dos’ and what are my ‘want-to-dos’?

From the Guardian – May 2017

In less harried days, our memories might have done the work. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was perhaps the first to note the brain’s obsession with pressing tasks. The so-called “Zeigarnik effect” – that we remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done – stemmed from observing that waiters could only recall diners’ orders before they had been served. After the dishes had been delivered, their memories simply erased who’d had the steak and who’d had the soup. The deed was done and the brain was ready to let go.

And here-in lies the most important element of to-do lists – they free up space for us to focus on other things.

They help us to park our distractions and direct our time and cognitive resource into what matters. How can we ever hope to be creative or innovative with a brain clogged up with a thousand other things all jockeying for our subliminal attention.

What we’ve learned at Maier when reflecting on how we use to-do lists is this;

Don’t build lists so tight that there’s no room to move – allow yourself the space to drift and explore as well as deliver and achieve. Be more ‘P’.

Include the good stuff as well as the work stuff – it’s invigorating to look down a list every now and then and see that you’ve written ‘go for a walk’, ‘call [insert name of choice here]’, ‘meditate’, ‘exercise’ etc.

Lists shouldn’t be static – instead they should be living entities that expand and recede in tune with what’s happening, but also how you’re feeling. And they should represent our wins and achievements rather than where we’ve fallen short or failed.


So, was this week’s blog written by a ‘J’ or a ‘P’?