I can’t find any evidence of a historical “starting point” of when humans started to make lists. It seems to be an innate function we have in order to mentally represent and visualise information. Nonetheless, I’d argue there are two basic reasons we create lists of any sort. Firstly, we make lists in order to make sense of a situation, and secondly, we make lists in order to take action in a methodical way.
Lists help us understand complex information
Reality is exceptionally complicated. There is no objective truth, and we have to settle for creating our own subjective reality. Because we experience reality subjectively, and because we have finite energy, we also have finite processing power. This means we have to rely on heuristics, and rules of thumb in order to simplify the world, and reduce uncertainty to a level we can live with. Breaking things down into easily understood categories and lists seems to be built into our very being!
Believe it or not, uncertainty reduction is the motive for a surprising number of human behaviours. We have heavy cognitive biases to ensure we always err on the side of caution. For example, understanding society as a set of groups you either belong to or do not belong to seems to be an automatic process, which can be observed in any society. This allows us to have a baseline for what is right or wrong, what is good or bad, and also what is and is not appropriate behaviour.
Forming lists allows you to handle complex or complicated situations and information, which causes uncertainty, and turn them into concrete and certain chunks, allowing you to better manage the information or situation, and then act on it. All this to say that if you are not making lists right now, you are betraying your species!
If that’s too deep for an article on writing better to do lists, the shorter version is that lists let us break down and understand very complex things in a simple way, and it seems this is built into our DNA.
Why to do list fail
A to do list is a list of actions you have to take. That’s it. A good to do list has to contain a lot more information than that. A bad to do list might even miss out the specific action that must be taken for that item to me marked as complete.
To do lists fair for a few reasons. As well as the three we’ll look at below, I know for a fact that a lot of to do lists fail because people get bogged down in the technology. Whether you use a pen and paper, or Wunderlist on your phone, tablet, laptop and work pc does not matter if you fail to write your to do list properly. It’s just a terrible to do list in a different format.
1. A to do list should be very simple and easy.
Some people make to do lists too complicated by adding far too much to them, making them useless. They refuse to focus them on one area, or keep the to do list to a realistic number of items.
2. A to do list needs to contain tasks of a realistically achievable size.
If you have a daily to do list filled with items that can’t be started and finished in a day, you don’t have a to do list, you have a not-doing list.
3. A to do list should contain actions.
This means you need to add enough detail to allow you to look at it and understand what you need to do, but some people go too far the other way and add far too little detail, making it useless.
What to do about it
First, make sure each item on your list is SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based.
Specific – Don’t write “launch website”, instead write “get sign-off from front-end developer on browser testing checklist, manually check contact form goes to correct place, carry out live test of basket and checkout, receive signoff from marketing team on SEO and webmaster submission” etc etc.
Measurable – Don’t write “write blog posts”, instead write “write four blog posts for February.”
Achievable – Don’t write “launch website” if you haven’t yet received written sign-off from the client. You should instead write “receive written sign-off from client”.
Realistic – Don’t write “reply to Jane about change to deadline”, if you need to speak to the rest of your team to confirm a few items to do this. Instead write “confirm deadline change details with team” and then another task “reply to Jane about change to deadline”
Time-based – Don’t write “Hold meeting with Dunstables team”, instead write “Hold meeting with Dunstables team at 11am”
When you are in the habit of writing SMART goals, you will know how to write a realistic to do item, but you need to go one layer further and apply this thinking to your entire list. After all, a list of perfectly SMART items is no use if that list itself isn’t SMART! If you have multiple responsibilities, you will likely need multiple lists.
I have a to do list for this website, and a to do list for my job. I have a to do list for the household chores I need to tackle at the weekend, and a to do list for the grocery shopping. Imagine if they were all in one big list. It would be ridiculously unmanageable!
Make sure your to do list is for a specific area, keep the number of items to a reasonable amount, and write the items as miniature instructions to yourself. That’s how to stop your to do list sucking, and how to start making them useful again.