I was grinding through my daily “To Do” list, moving and consolidating the various seemingly urgent items, when I wondered if such a practice was really effective. I was spending a lot of time tracking what needed to be done on these lists. I was using online tools, notebooks, and scraps of paper. But I had never examined the practice itself and was wondering. Are To Do lists really useful?
These lists played a significant role in my day. I would start with a list early in the morning and use it until evening. It seems we all have a complex relationship with our To Do lists. Psychologists study why we use them, and why we don’t follow them. In the tradition of Quantified Self, I decided to study my own relationship with my To Do lists.
Was my practice of making and following a To Do list really useful?
What I Did
Over the course of 21 days I logged my To Do’s as they arose. I captured my frame of mind as I first thought of the item and my feeling after I had explored it. I also logged what would happen if I did not complete the item, and what I thought was the underlying goal behind the item. I call these underlying goals Source Code Stories. I was looking for Source Code Stories that were driving the impulse to do something. For example, if the To Do was to get a report to my colleague, the Source Code Story could be that I wanted to be seen as responsive.
How I Did It
I used a Google Form and my iPhone to create a mini-survey. The format was similar to my Upset log that I have described here before. When I felt the urge to do something and log it on a To Do list, the first entry on the Form was my state of mind on a scale of 1 to 5. The next entry was the item. The third was what would happen if I did not complete the item. The fourth entry captured what I thought I was trying to achieve, which was the indicator of the Source Code Story. The fifth and final entry again rated my state of mind from 1 to 5. Using this simple survey I was able to capture 105 To Do impulses over the course of 21 days.
What I Learned
My habit of creating To Do lists was not really useful. The majority of impulses to get something done came from a stressed state and the impact of not following these impulses on my situation was negligible. My To Do lists were capturing non-essential impulses that were not driving big outcomes. What was least useful is the existence of the list kept dragging my attention back to these small matters, robbing me of attention of being available for more creative, larger outcomes.
Looking at my state of mind when To Do’s arise, I found that 79.1% of the time I was in a negative mental state. That meant I was worried or in a state where my mind was racing. Only 20.9% of the time was I in a positive state considering creative things to do. Here is an image of my state during To Do’s:
Looking at what would happen if I did not take action on the To Do’s, I found that nearly all of the recorded To Do’s had no immediate impact on the situation if I did not do them. Over half, if not done, would have no impact at all. For a portion eventually I would be reminded to do the item by another person or I could do it later. Here is the breakdown of results if I did not pursue the To Do’s:
Only 3 of the 105 logged impulses would result in something creative and interesting that I was initiating coming to a halt. That meant that the creation of the To Do list was not driving big, creative outcomes at all. It was rooting action back in the long list of stress based low level tactical activity.
Looking at my state of mind, when I felt I had an obligation to another person my average start mood was 2.35. When the To Do was a mechanical item like getting a car washed, the average start mood was 2.9. There was a statistically significant difference in state of mind between those To Do’s that were obligations to a person versus getting something mechanical done.
This tied into my Source Code Stories. Looking at the most prominent of these stories, I found that having people appreciate my effort and seeing me as knowledgeable were the most numerous. Other stories like being organized or balancing my checkbook lagged far behind.
Looking at my Source Code Stories and counting the number of To Do’s by type, I saw that despite that fact that connecting with people had a disproportionate importance for me, 63% of my To Do lists were tactical, mechanical items. Are to do lists really useful? I’ve found they aren’t for me.