The Science of the Perfect To-Do List

There’s a special satisfaction that comes with checking the last thing off a lengthy to-do list. Science says so: The more progress you make toward your goals, the better you feel. A list, as basic as it is, can be the key to achieving what you want—and have—to do, says Linda Rothschild, a professional organizer in New York. And it can mean the difference between success and failure.

“We are carrying so much information that we don’t want to forget. Just getting it all out of your head and down on paper makes you breathe a little easier.”

“There are people with such sharp brains they don’t need to make a list to remember things,” she says. And then there are the rest of us. “There is no way I could remember everything in my pea brain. No way I could function without lists.”But a list is not a magic wand. That crumpled envelope covered in your hasty chicken scratch at the bottom of your bag isn’t likely to make your goals a reality—and neither will a fancy app, if it’s not the right app for you. Here’s what you need to know to become an expert list maker, list user and list-checker-offer.An endlessly long list will not function as well as several shorter, easily digestible lists built around a unifying theme. The same goes for the task at hand. “Set the big goal and then work out the steps to get there,” advises Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University and coauthor of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” “Make the first couple steps as specific as possible, so you know exactly what to do, and when and where to do it.”

 
 
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Start with a brain dump.To begin, Rothschild recommends sitting down in front of a blank document on your computer and just getting it all out at once. Take the burden off your brain and put it onto the page. “We are carrying so much information that we don’t want to forget. Just getting it all out of your head and down on paper makes you breathe a little easier.” Sometimes you’ll come up with an actual task, she says, sometimes just a thought; let your stream of consciousness flow.

 
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Then break it down.Once you have everything down, break it up into smaller lists as though you were organizing your closet. Shoes go here, dresses here, sweaters there. Your master list becomes a list of personal tasks, a list of calls and appointments to make, a shopping list and a list of errands to do while you’re downtown. Getting married? You’ll have your wedding list. Got three kids? Each of them might need a list of his own. Big project at work? List each step in the process.

 
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There are different types of lists.When turning your master list into smaller lists, they might take different forms. If you need to go grocery shopping, you’ll need to make a list of groceries, obviously. If you have to call your doctor for test results on Monday, pick up the dry cleaning on Tuesday, and buy a bottle of wine for dinner on Friday, you might want to spread these out on a calendar layout. Along the way, you may have a bunch of random things you have to get done before the weekend, but not on any particular day. Those should go on a weekly list.

 
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And there are different types of list-makers.Some of us are paper people. Some of us are app fanatics (see our favorite to-do list apps here). Some of us love a good Post-it. You have to do what works for you, which often means that the templates of digital or preprinted lists aren’t going to mesh with your style. Rothschild likes lists in a basic Word doc. Mark it up however you wish. “Everybody thinks differently and some people like colors and some like stars and some like to see things crossed out or checked off,” she continues. “And me, I just like to see it gone.”

 
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A list is a living document.Things change. Priorities rearrange. New needs arise and old ones become obsolete. A list needs to be flexible and easy to update. That’s a big benefit to keeping lists on your computer. It’s much easier to delete than erase, to copy-paste than rewrite. (If you want to have a paper list, just print one out.)

 
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Keep it all together.“Try not to write things in 100 different places,” Rothschild insists. If you’re out and about and think of something you need to remember, send yourself an email. At the end of the day, add your emailed ideas to your master list.

 
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Lists take discipline.A list isn’t just a list; it’s a habit. You have to remember to make it, update it, sort it and, above all, use it. A list you never look at is the worst list of all. Make your list a part of your daily routine. Early birds, organize the day’s to-do list first thing in the morning. Night owls, do it the evening before. Open it when you start your day and schedule a “midday sort,” where you assess your progress, check what’s left and make sure you’re not missing anything.MORE: The Best To-Do List Apps for Your Phone