By Ryan Ricks
Now that many of us are stuck at home during this quarantine, the importance of schedules and routines in our lives has become increasingly pronounced. And of all of our scheduling tools, perhaps the most famous and wide-spread is the simple to-do list.
Whether you use the Notes app on your phone, a pad of paper, or even a planner, the to-do list is a great way to become more organized and to feel more in control over any situation. This feeling of control is especially needed right now, when we are in the middle of one of the most uncontrollable periods of our lives.
To-do lists help us because our brain really likes order. Even if you consider yourself a disorganized person, on a base level you are still organizing everything you see. We constantly categorize things in our brains, ordering them in these groups we’ve created for ourselves. It’s why when we see a round, metal cylinder, we think “water bottle,” or if we see a metal stand with a bulb on top, we think “lamp.” In fact, our brains like order and patterns so much that sometimes we go too far. There is a word for seeing patterns where there are none, it’s called apophenia. The fact that such a phenomenon needs a word should prove that our brains really like order.
Clearly, we like patterns. But why tell you all this? Well, it all has to do with my main point—organization helps us. We need organization in our everyday lives because we are literally hard-wired to organize. Organization and pattern recognition are how we go through everyday life. Our brains take in so many stimuli during the day, and when those stimuli are made conscious, as in we actually perceive them, our brains organize the information immediately.
There are many different ideas and reasons as to why our brains have such a fixation on organization. They range from the more biological and evolutionary reasons, like how we needed this function to survive, to more abstract reasons, like how we do not like chaos, and would rather order the world around us. Whatever the reasons are, the fact is we like organization and we seek to order things. To-do lists can fulfill this need. Writing things down in a list allows us to order what we need to do, and prioritize those things. To-do lists make us more productive while also satisfying a need we have in our brains.
While schedules and to-do lists satisfy our craving for organization, they also make us more effective in finishing the tasks we write on them. Unfinished tasks can make us feel anxious, and what’s worse is that we can’t stop focusing on them either. Through a phenomenon called the “Zeigarnik effect”, we are much more likely to recall tasks that we haven’t finished more than tasks we have. These tasks and chores stay in our mind, which likely worsens our anxiety about them. Planners and to-do lists can help with this, because just the act of planning out tasks can lift anxiety about them, according to a study done at Wake Forest University. If you’re not sure about how true this is, think back to something like your New Year’s Resolutions. Say you had a resolution to exercise more. For many people, this resolution will not last past a few weeks. But since we feel so much anxiety about unfinished tasks, why do so many New Year’s Resolutions fail? It largely has to do with the soothing ability of planning. We feel almost as much satisfaction in planning to do something as we do actually executing the task.
So, to-do lists have great psychological benefits as well. Though this does beg the question, if we make to-do lists, what’s to stop us from just feeling satisfied in writing them, and not following through? Well, if I’m allowed to make my own theory, it all has to do with our anxiety and dislike of unfinished tasks. Sure, we may like to write down our tasks on our to-do list, but depending on how you may format yours, those lists leave a little blank circle or square on the side of each task. An unfinished circle or square. So while writing down tasks may be satisfying, nothing is more satisfying than filling those boxes with that little check-mark.
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