Learn how to tolerate your to-do list

In this month's Work Life Lab Experiment, Oliver Burkeman invites you to try out a new work routine to see if you can get some of that list done…


Learn how to tolerate your to-do list

Perhaps this is a scene you’ll recognise: you are feeling overwhelmed by too many work tasks, so you resolve to make a list. You grab a pen, write down the 25 things that you’re currently juggling – and already, just by making that list, you feel some of the stress evaporating, even though you haven’t made any other progress. So, what’s going on?

According to productivity coach David Allen, stress is not caused solely by having too much to do, but by the mind’s efforts to keep track of it all. A list serves as an ‘outboard brain’: it takes care of the job of remembering things, leaving your mind free to focus calmly on what it does best – which is doing the work itself.

The theory

Back in 1956, the psychologist George Miller tried to answer the question of how many items most people could hold in working memory. His paper’s title: ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus Or Minus Two’. Later research suggests that it’s not quite as simple as that, but the essential truth remains: your mind isn’t great at storing any lists except the shortest ones. Still, it does try, and the end result is stress: you are constantly being distracted from one task by thoughts of another, or woken at 3am with a sudden reminder of something you forgot. (We tend to think of interruptions as coming from others – a pestering colleague, a crying baby, a fire drill – but they’re just as likely to come from within.)

What you need is a list: ‘Your mind can’t let go until you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look,’ explains Allen. A good rule of thumb to remember when you’re making a list is, for each item you add, try to use at least one physical verb in your written description. For example, if you simply write the word ‘Conference?’, you’ll probably never get around to addressing it; instead, by writing ‘Call Jenny to ask for the details of the conference’ you create something concrete, requiring no extra thought before you pick up the phone.

Try this

This month, take a notebook, or use a note-taking app on your phone, then sit down somewhere quiet and take at least 30 minutes to list everything that’s ‘on your plate’.

  • Don’t censor yourself, and don’t limit yourself to your job: include everything from unfinished work projects to errands, home repairs, vague ambitions or life goals.
  • Whenever another item comes to mind, develop the habit of adding it to the Big List. Then try to find a few moments, at least once a day, to glance through the list. Remember the goal isn’t to get it all done, just to store your thoughts.
  • If traditional to-do lists are your thing, make a separate one each day by skimming the Big List and picking the most important tasks. Once your sub­conscious starts trusting these habits list, you’ll relax.

Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and author of The Antidote (Canongate, £8.99) 

More inspiration:

Read It's time to stop the glorification of busy by Jules Mitchell on LifeLabs

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