Why do we make to-do lists?

‘Return DVD. Make appointment with vet. Pay for the holiday…’ From New Year resolutions to routine chores, most of us write to-do lists. What’s behind this compulsion and does it really make us more productive? By Hélène Fresnel


Why do we make to-do lists?

There’s a ritual that Lucy, 43, never skips. Every Sunday night after dinner, she takes a sheet of A4 paper and carefully cuts it into five strips – lists for the five workdays ahead. At the top of each, she writes the date, and beneath that, the tasks to accomplish. ‘If I don’t write them down, I can’t think straight. If I don’t give myself targets, I feel completely lost,’ she says.

Lucy carries the lists in her handbag and checks them regularly – about 10 times a day – to see how she’s doing. ‘Writing things down supports what is most fragile in our memories,’ says psychoanalyst François Leguil. ‘We spend our time forgetting what we ought to be doing, and what we’ve already done. Lists provide support, backing up these things we’ve been unable to memorise.’

Our unconscious has no trouble in getting rid of what is weighing us down by erasing it from our thoughts. As Freud demonstrated so clearly in The Psychopathology Of Everyday Life (Penguin), if we forget, it’s because we don’t want to remember. For some of us, lists enable us to overcome the occasional lapse in memory. And they keep us on the straight and narrow. Like Lucy with her five pieces of paper, our lists become just like homework. ‘My lists are a way of forcing me to focus.’ she says. ‘My natural state is one of slackness, a sort of anxious, paralysing sluggishness.’

Sabrina, 32, is conscious that her list-making can make her feel constricted, as well as more organised. ‘I’m an extremely disorganised person, and this habit represents an attempt to overcome the chaos and impose some order on my everyday life,’ she says. But does list-making satisfy us, or is it a form of punishment? When Mark, 38, has carried out one of the tasks on his list, he admits to taking a certain pleasure in crossing it off with a black marker.

‘Each crossed-out task is the visible proof that we’ve done our duty,’ says Leguil. It’s also a sign that we are capable of organising ourselves, and of rationalising our daily lives. We stick to our lists in the hope that our day will go the way we planned, without worrying gaps left to chance. We try to convince ourselves that we have control over our world.

‘Tolerance of uncertainty is very hard to live with,’ says psychiatrist Stéphanie Hahusseau. ‘We live in a hyper-controlled society, with objectives to fulfil. Culturally we are unaccustomed to letting ourselves be carried along, to participate in whatever is happening in the here and now, without any particular expectations.’

But of course, nothing ever happens as we expect. Ask those list-makers around you how many manage to cross off every item on time, every time? None – or very few. Why is that? We imagine that by writing down our obligations we’ll make them unavoidable; we credit the written word with magical powers. ‘We’re fickle by nature,’ says Leguil. ‘We are caught between conflicting pressures, between the imperatives contained in our list and the pleasure of screwing the paper up into a ball and chucking it in the bin.’

The pleasure of breaking the rules can be hard to resist. Another reason we don’t follow our lists is because we procrastinate, often putting off until tomorrow the things we need to do today. According to psychotherapist Dr Bruno Koeltz, there are three reasons for this failure. First: the simple fact that pleasurable activities are more seductive than important but boring tasks. Then there’s performance anxiety: are we up to the tasks we’ve set ourselves? Perfectionism is mixed with a need to protect our self-image. By not undertaking a task, we avoid the possibility that we’re not up to it, and we’re not confronted with our failings.

Finally, Koeltz talks about‘passive aggressive reactions’. Since we feel constrained, we put on the brakes, because deep down we rebel against orders, even our own. But according to Hahusseau, if we don’t follow our lists, it’s often because our plans are too vague or ambitious. ‘Break down the task,’ she advises. ‘Rather than write “clean up the bedroom”, write “clear out the chest of drawers”.’

Koeltz notes that our lists are often badly structured, too wide-ranging and poorly organised. ‘Before asking ourselves why we’re not getting there, we might ask instead if everything we’ve written down really needs to be done and, if so, by when,’ he says. ‘This is why I often advise my patients to make three categories of list: first, the imperatives that can’t be put off; second, the “If I have the time” items; and third, a “When I’ve got nothing else left to do” list. And we could feel better about ourselves by writing down at the end of the day every-thing we’ve achieved that wasn’t on the list.’

In any event, we should remember one of the chief characteristics of the list: it obeys the principle of infinity and eternal renewal. What would happen if we had nothing left to do?

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