Why you should write a to-do list every morning

Laptop and notebook

In a very well-written post for Fast Company entitled How Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain (Whether Or Not You Finish Them), Art Markman explains the reason I choose to use a physical, printed-out daily planner rather than a digital version:

Keeping a list of tasks you need to perform is like taking notes when you’re reading a book or listening to a lecture. When you take notes, you need to filter external information, summarize it in your head, and then write it down. Many studies have shown that note taking helps us distill the information we hear and remember it better than we would if we’d just heard or read it.

Writing a to-do list is a similar mental experience. Even if you first spend some time thinking about the tasks you have to do, the act of drawing up a list and prioritizing the items on it forces you to do a little extra work.

This matters. Your brain decides which pieces of information to hang onto for later, partly as a result of how much work you do to them up front—so the more you mentally manipulate a piece of information, the better you’ll remember it. That’s why it’s sometimes surprisingly easy to remember what’s on your to-do list even when you aren’t looking at it.

I’d be lost without an online calendar. I haven’t come across anything which helps me organise my personal, family, and work life quite so effectively. The process of moving things to and from my daily planner to my online calendar is important:

[O]nce you write down the tasks you need to perform, you then have to clear space in your day to put some of those tasks onto your calendar. This calendar maintenance is itself a useful exercise for fighting the tide of interruptions you’re always facing. It pulls your brain out of a reactive mode and forces you to think about the long term. Plan your to-do activities a few weeks ahead when your calendar still has some blank spaces in it. Add in time for the tasks that are crucial for achieving those long-term goals.

You may also find you don’t have enough space in the calendar to make that happen—and that’s okay, too. When that happens, it’s a good sign that you’ve been loaded down with other, less-important jobs that are crowding out your most important work. And chances are it was difficult to see that before sitting down to manage your calendar.

I go through phases of blocking out specific things I need to do — for example, write a blog post, research a particular area, batch-reply to emails — and adding these to my calendar. Then, if you do have to (or choose to) share your calendar on a free/busy basis, people won’t request meetings at times you’ve scheduled to get some important things done!

Image via Nomad Pictures