Learn to Love Lists

by | Jun 14, 2024 | I-O Psychology, Management and Leadership, Workplace | 0 comments

Leverage task to-do lists for motivation and momentum for performance

Anyone who knows me knows I travel everywhere with a yellow legal pad. As much as my life has become increasingly connected to the digital space, I simply cannot find a substitute for writing with pen and paper. More specifically, I create a daily to-do list that includes mundane tasks and specific goals, such as:

  • Spray the Yoda, our 17-year-old Giant Day Gecko
  • Make my wife’s coffee
  • Get the kids up for school or work
  • Exercise or go for a jog
  • Put last night’s dishes away
  • Do the laundry
  • Write content – blogs, podcasts, presentations… SOMETHING
  • Draw
  • Each meeting or engagement of the day
  • Specific client-oriented tasks.

While I use a formula for each weekday and a different formula on the weekends (for chores, Church, and shopping on the latter), I handwrite every single entry. Several of my coaches through the years have instilled in me the need to write what I wish to accomplish, and this simple action has helped guide me to self-improvement and accountability for more than a decade. 

Along with my yellow notepad, I also use Asana to stay on task for my business and volunteer tasks. This online tool allows me to collaborate with the various teams within the client and volunteer organizations with which I work. In fact, for any company or nonprofit that I advise or lead, we adopt or refine the use of collaboration tools like Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Monday.com, Slack, or other software among our initial activities.

What I love: Checking off accomplished tasks! How invigorating!

What I hate: Crossing out incomplete or ignored tasks! How demoralizing…

Research Supports the Use of Checklists

To-do lists do not simply act as tools for task management; they can empower individuals and work groups to achieve personal and professional goals. The process of creating and completing tasks on a to-do list can significantly enhance productivity, motivation, and overall work performance. In researching this brief article, I found more than a few sources in academic and popular literature that reinforce the use of lists as a positive work behavior.

Achieving SMART Goals

The use of to-do lists aligns perfectly with the concept of SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. By breaking down larger objectives into smaller, manageable tasks, individuals can focus on specific actions that lead to achieving their goals. Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory – which states that setting achievable and challenging goals motivates individuals to overcome obstacles and attain their objectives – supports this approach (Locke & Latham, 2002).

The Science Behind the Satisfaction

One of the most satisfying aspects of using to-do lists is the ability to check off completed tasks. More than just a physical movement, this action triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward (Michely et al., 2020). This chemical boost can create a positive feedback loop, encouraging further productivity and task completion.

Structuring Goals for Success

A meta-analysis by Bardach et al. (2020) found that the structure of goals is crucial to personal achievement. These goal structures include pursuing mastery, avoiding failure, and improving performance. To-do lists provide a clear framework that helps individuals prioritize tasks and manage their time effectively toward achieving their objectives within these achievement types. By organizing tasks in a structured manner, individuals can create a sense of order and control, reduce stress, and increase efficiency.

Digital Tools for Collaboration

While handwritten lists have their charm and effectiveness, digital tools like Asana offer additional benefits, especially for collaborative work environments. These tools enable teams to track progress, assign tasks, and communicate effectively, ensuring that everyone stays aligned and focused on common goals (Asana, n.d.). With remote, hybrid, and in-person teams, software platforms have emerged and evolved with an array of features to help keep individuals and teams on tasks for projects and operations. Many of these integrate with popular calendar software such as Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook to ensure time-constrained goals have notifications posted via email or other messaging. Vital information for projects, tasks, and subtasks – including task names, task descriptions, due dates, owners/assignees, collaborators, and notes – can now provide the transparency and communication that promotes employee engagement and goal achievement.

To-do lists serve as invaluable tools for anyone looking to enhance productivity and achieve their goals. Whether written on a yellow legal pad or managed through digital platforms, listing tasks and checking them off can provide a sense of accomplishment and motivation. Embracing this practice can lead to significant improvements in both personal and professional life.

Listen to Our Podcast for More

If you enjoyed this article, tune into the Harmonious Workplaces Podcast! Brought to you by Industrial-Organizational Psychology (I-O) practitioners, Change Management and Organizational Development (OD) Consultants, Human Resources Professionals, and Management Consultants, our podcast seeks to help organizations compose safe, inclusive, and productive organizations. Join Rich Cruz, Sharyl Volpe, Ben Kleinman, and other I-Os, HRMs, ODs, and more for discussions on topics that shape the way we work together.

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Asana. (n.d.). Make better to-do lists. Retrieved from https://asana.com/resources/make-better-to-do-lists 

Bardach, L., Oczlon, S., Pietschnig, J., & Lüftenegger, M. (2020). Has achievement goal theory been right? A meta-analysis of the relation between goal structures and personal achievement goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(6), 1197–1220. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000419 

Harvard Business Review. (2022, January). Why we continue to rely on (and love) to-do lists. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2022/01/why-we-continue-to-rely-on-and-love-to-do-lists 

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705 

Michely, J., Viswanathan, S., Hauser, T. U., et al. (2020). The role of dopamine in dynamic effort-reward integration. Neuropsychopharmacology, 45(8), 1448–1453. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-0669-0 

Workast. (2020). The secret psychology on why we love completing to-do lists. Retrieved from https://www.workast.com/blog/the-secret-psychology-on-why-we-love-completing-to-do-lists/ 

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