You might not have heard of it, but the Zeigarnik effect is a phenomenon that all of us have experienced and one that drives our desire to cross things off our to-do lists. It describes how people become fixated on an open task until the loop is closed. Until that happens, people’s mental and physical health can suffer, and we only find relief when the task is completed. As if you needed more incentive to power through your looming to-do list, right?
There are numerous benefits of keeping a to-do list, but when progress starts to slow or the list becomes overwhelmingly long, a list can suddenly look like an enemy instead of an ally. Here are some tips to help you lure that unwieldy to-do list back to your side!
Use the tool that works for you
Whether it’s a sheet of paper, Word document, weekly planner or online app such as Evernote or Week Plan, find the method of to-do tracking that works best for you. It’s proven that writing things down with good ole fashioned pen and paper helps you remember things better, but if you’re constantly misplacing your notebook, that might not do the trick. Make sure you’re choosing something that complements your strengths and weaknesses.
Prioritize (and then cross off the last few items)
Most of us probably feel like there are an infinite number of tasks we could add to our to-do list on a daily basis. Working at a technology marketing company, things are always moving quickly. We find ourselves juggling multiple projects for multiple clients on an hourly basis, so prioritizing what needs to get done first is essential. Number your to-do items, with one being the highest priority, and commit to crossing the top three items of your list every day.
You don’t want your to-do list to intimidate you. Ever get that feeling of sinking disappointment or demotivation when you don’t accomplish something? Avoid that by being realistic and upfront about what you can get done in a day. Don’t confuse a to-do with a longer-term goal or aspiration.
Make tasks action-oriented
Make sure your to-dos are manageable tasks. This often means breaking down larger projects – like “write copy for client website” – into individual tasks – like “create copy for the products page.” Taking this approach creates a mini road map to follow. Make sure your tasks are specific and “verb-centric.” Being able to take baby steps and tackle smaller components of a larger to-do will give you momentum and encouragement to move forward.
Eat the frog first
In a tactic known as “pain stacking,” psychology dictates that people prefer to lump unpleasant experiences at the beginning of the day and have experiences that improve over time. The most effective, successful people direct their will power to “eating the frog” first before moving on to other, more pleasant tasks. It’s advice that no one wants to follow, but, if you make a conscious effort to cross off some of your hardest tasks first (depending on where they fall on your prioritized list) you’ll be a lot more effective.
Take five minutes at the end of each day to re-evaluate your to do list. Re-prioritize if needed, do a celebratory dance over the crossed off items and make sure you’ve accurately captured any new to-dos the day brought on. People are most energized and productive at the beginning of the day and having an updated list to tackle as soon as your day starts can make you more productive.
A stellar to-do list isn’t going to be your cure-all for unproductivity, slow progress or tasks that fall through the cracks. There will still be days that make your to-do list look as though its been fed a dose of MiracleGro, sprouting limbs, instead of shrinking, as you would have hoped. Don’t let those days get you down! Keep these tips top of mind, particularly on those really stressful days, and continue to power through.