Why to-do lists make you more productive -- even if you never finish everything on them

The whole point of a to-do list — even a really snazzy colour-coded one — is to eventually throw it away.

You win the productivity game when you accomplish everything you set out to, or so conventional thinking goes.

Except maybe conventional thinking is wrong; maybe there’s a less obvious path to productivity.

In a September column for Fast Company, psychologist Art Markman argues that to-do lists can be helpful even if you never complete everything on them.

He lays out a number of reasons why this is true, and the one that stood out to me is this (emphasis mine):

“As you think through these smaller tasks [that comprise the broad goals you hope to achieve], other steps will often occur to you — some that you hadn’t originally envisioned needing to take when you first set your overarching goal. They weren’t obvious until you actually thought about everything it would take to reach it.

“So even if your agenda changes in practice as you work toward your objective, the process of thinking ahead about the steps involved can help prime you to do the work ahead.”

The example Markman gives is trying to write a book — but let’s take that down a notch to writing a project report. First you need to do research; then you need to write; then you need to revise. And there are probably other, smaller steps along the way.

As soon as you put “write project report” on your list, you’ll realise all the tasks that goal actually entails. As a result, maybe you block out more time in your schedule for the report, or at least mentally prepare yourself for a busy day.

What Markman’s offering is a twist on pairing “stretch” and “SMART” goals, a strategy that Charles Duhigg describes in his book “Smarter Faster Better.” The idea is to list an ambitious objective along with all the concrete sub-tasks you’ll need to complete in order to reach that objective.

When I spoke with Duhigg in March and he helped me come up with a SMART system for one of my stretch goals, he also acknowledged that the detailed plan might change — but at least I knew where to start.

These insights are heartening in light of the fact that about 41% of items on a to-do list never get completed, according to productivity company iDoneThis.

Maybe just thinking about everything you want to accomplish in the upcoming week, or month, or year (oh hey there, 2017) counts as progress and motivation, even if they’re not immediately tangible.

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