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Everyone who has ever worked in any capacity knows how a To-Do List works.

  • You start by dutifully making a detailed list of the things you want to have achieved by the end of whatever period applies. Easy bit.
  • You then start by doing the easiest ones on the list – the ones that take no physical or mental effort. Those 2-minute tasks which, once ticked off on the list, make that list look as though you’ve been really busy, even though you really haven’t.
  • Then, as you inevitably find yourself doing something that ‘comes to mind’ or is additionally and annoyingly tasked to you as the day goes along, you add it to the list after you completed it and you simultaneously cross it off, adding to that impression of effectiveness and making you feel grrreeeaaat.
  • At the end of the day you smile smugly as you look at all those crossed off items and think ‘Haven’t I been good?’ Then you look at the items that remain uncompleted and think, ‘No, not really. I haven’t done the big
  • You also add tomorrow’s to-dos and realise that for all that apparent busy-ness and dedicated productivity, the list has got longer, not shorter!

‘Twas ever thus, and any time management book worth its salt will tell you that.

Nevertheless, I am happy to suggest that while this is the fashion in which To-Do Lists are routinely executed, they still remain a core practice for most of us and, despite my evident criticism of the usual way in which they are utilised, they can be an excellent way of achieving stuff. But obviously not if they are used in the fashion I have just described.

Effective time management through list-making can be effective. It just takes some higher level of thinking and disciplined application. (But not too much discipline.)

So why do to-do lists work? Science.

I pride myself on a good memory, or more precisely a good working memory. Which does not mean I never forget anything, I assure you. If I can’t remember ‘a fact’, I know how to use my memory to rediscover the fact I seek. In my mind’s eye, I believe that the reason I can do this is the same reason that a properly formulated To-Do List works. And uninteresting as it may initially sound when I finish this sentence, it is all down to science.

Psychologists seem to be agreed on the ability of the human sub-conscious to ascertain what the conscious mind has at some time considered to be important, and then remind the brain when something is happening that relates to that. Here is an idiot’s guide to how that works.

Have you ever been in the enviable position to buy the car you really wanted?

I have. In 2005 I was able to buy a black Toyota MR2, a reliably Japanese Ferrari look-alike which was just fast enough to be quick but frugal enough to be affordable. I saw it the morning I bought it, and if you were to ask me even now I would swear to you that prior to that morning I had only seen red, blue and white ones. It took a while to organise a visit to the vendor, to test-drive it, haggle on a price and pay the cash over. Then I had to insure it to drive it home, and the whole process between see and drive home took about 6 hours. Then I went for a 5-mile run.

And on a 2 mile stretch of road I saw three, yes THREE black Toyota MR2s.

Years later I decided I wanted a Ford Mondeo ST, and I wanted it so much that months before I got it, I could spot an ST out of the corner of my eye 400 yards away. I would not see any other model – only STs and their distinctive wheel design. From miles away.

That is how the mind works. It is called the Reticular Activating System and it is the mind’s way of telling you what you told it, was important. It used to be used to avoid sharp teeth and other dangers, but now it shows you cars. Or books, or jewellery, or clothes or shoes. “You want it?” says the brain. “Here it is.”

Let’s transfer this new knowledge to the simple To-Do List.

When you write something on your list you do so because in some way you have decided it is important enough to make a note about it. This has two effects.

As you wrote it, you further anchored it in your mind. At the same time, you also transferred responsibility for its completion from your mind onto the piece of paper or digital device. What happened next is an indication of how effectively your mind works! Either you remembered to do it simply because you noted it, or you remembered to do it because you looked at the list. I would suggest that if you consciously abandoned responsibility to your List, your successful completion of the task is directly related to your frequency of referral to that List. If you unconsciously abandoned that responsibility, your success is related to how important the task was to your subconscious – unless you look at the list anyway.

Either way, having the list was important the moment you made it. It is important to have made the list because you made the action important in your head when you wrote it, which may not have happened if you hadn’t made the list. Or it is important because you have the list as a tangible reminder.

No list = no subconscious or conscious support for getting things done. Your memory can’t be jogged unless there is something done, or created, that does that.

Next time you write a to-do list, bear all that in mind and it will improve the effectiveness of that list – and your own.