A photo of a white woman laying on the sofa writing out their to-do list in their journal to represent the topic of the article - To Do Lists: The Simple Motivational Technique You've Been Overlooking - Unwanted Life

To Do Lists: The Simple Overlooked Motivational Technique

You might already know I’ve had to move because of issues between my subletting landlord and the freeholder of the building, if you follow me on Twitter. Because of the move, I had to create to do lists to stay on top of everything. As a result, I was reminded of how useful making these could be, which inspired me to write this article.


There are many ways to create to do lists. The classic way would be to write them out using pen and paper, which some people prefer. Personally, I used an app on my phone while preparing to move, because I’ll always have it with me. There is no right or wrong option, so just pick whichever is best for you.


To get the best from your to do lists, put them in order of priority, starting from the top with the most important, with the one with the least priority at the bottom. Then cross them out as you complete each item.



The Benefits Of To Do Lists


One of the main reasons for creating to do lists is because the evidence shows that the act of making to do lists reduces the burden on the brain (Forbes). Essentially, your to do lists become an external memory drive (Checkify). You’re also more likely to forget something if you don’t write it down in a to do list (Arnold and Pulich, 2004).


To make sure you don’t forget anything, note them down as soon as they come to you (PC Mag), which is why I prefer using an app on my phone for my to do lists. Furthermore, just the act of creating to do lists can make you more efficient, especially when overwhelmed with tasks (Masicampo and Baumeister, 2011).


By making to do lists, you can tap into the Zeigarnik effect while blocking the Ovsiankina effect. The Zeigarnik effect happens when a task is interrupted, which allows for better recall of the task because you’ve not been able to cross it off your mental to do list (Masicampo and Baumeister, 2011). This results in us not being able to give all our attention to the following task, which is where the Ovsiankina effect steps in, causing intrusive thoughts.


Intrusive thoughts affect our attention to the following task by reminding us of the unfinished one. So having to do lists that track your tasks can reduce this burden on your brain (Forbes). Because your to do lists has a record of your tasks, intrusive thoughts don’t need to remind you of them. Thus, you’re freeing cognitive resources (Masicampo and Baumeister, 2011).


To do lists, are an effective tool in making us more organised and reliable (Mind Tools). Got a deadline? Break down everything you need to do and put them in order of priority so you can meet that deadline, crossing the tasks off as you go along. By creating to do lists and splitting the tasks into trackable chunks, you’re making your workload more manageable and creating a clear plan of action (Checkify).


This is supported by Schrager and Sadowski (2016), who gave an example of how to write scholarly papers more effectively. They stated that instead of putting “write paper” on your to do list, which isn’t very helpful, you should split the paper into its individual components instead. Therefore, you could have “write introduction”, “write methodology”, and “make tables” as items on your to do list.


Another benefit of creating to do lists is similar to tracking your achievements. When you cross items off your to do lists, you’ll get you a sense of accomplishment. That feeling of achievement will help motivate you to complete the rest of the tasks on your to do list. This also taps into the concept of positive psychology, which is one of my favourite psychological theories.


To do lists can make for great goal trackers, giving it another bonus to your motivation. You can use to do lists to take your end goal and turn them into smaller, actionable goals (Checkify). As you cross out each of the smaller goals, you’ll be able to check on your progress towards your end goal. So break out your SMART goals and get cracking.




How To Get The Most From Your To Do Lists


According to PC Mag, one of the things you can do to get the most from your to do lists is to start each day by quickly reviewing the lists. Doing this will remind you of what’s on your to do lists and give you a chance to make adjustments to them. Remember, don’t schedule too many tasks to do each day, as you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. Figure out the correct limit of tasks to do each day instead (PC Mag).


To do lists can be used to list tasks that need completing and/or things you’d like to do (PC Mag). For example, you might create a to do list for the household chores that need doing. You might also create a to do list for stuff you’d like to do while on holiday.


The picture is split in two with the top image being of a white man crossing something off their to-do list that's on their fridge. The bottom image being of a pair of ladies hands filling in their to-do list in their daily dairy. The two images are separated by the article title - To Do Lists: The Simple Motivational Technique You've Been Overlooking - Unwanted Life


The Downsides Of To Do Lists


There are only really two downsides to creating to do lists, the first one was highlighted by Leshed and Sengers (2011). Their study, which used 45-100 minute long interviews, found that although productivity tools like to do lists could relieve anxiety, it can sometimes come at a price. One participant stated that their to do list was perpetually filling up, like they were moving forward while always being behind. A common concern was losing their productivity tools, with a participant stating that when they forgot their planner. The participants became anxious because they were unsure what they were meant to be working on from that to do list.


One way to avoid the latter issue, for me, was using an app to track my to do lists. I use one that I can access from any browser should my phone be out of commission for whatever reason. Meaning, as long as there’s something with internet access around, I will always have access to my to do lists.


The second downside of creating to do lists is how they can be used to procrastinate. It seems counterintuitive, given that to do lists make us more efficient, but they can be used to avoid completing your tasks and goals. For some, they can get so focused on creating these lists that they’ll fill all their time with doing just that, making more to do lists. 


Although rare, people can use to do lists to map out every aspect of their life, then get stuck in constantly reviewing these lists rather than working through them. There could be several reasons for doing this, such as fear, but whatever the cause, the effect is the same.






There are many benefits to creating to do lists, such as being more productive and helping you reach your goals. You can enhance these benefits by making lists for different areas of your life and quickly reviewing your lists. However, to do lists can get out of hand if you lose focus on working through the lists, instead becoming fixated on the process of creating them. So, monitor yourself and make sure you are actually working through your to do lists.


As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences of using to do lists in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.


Lastly, if you’d like to support my blog, you can make a donation of any size below. Until next time, Unwanted Life readers.







Arnold, E., & Pulich, M. (2004). Improving productivity through more effective time management. The health care Manager23(1), 65-70. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/healthcaremanagerjournal/Abstract/2004/01000/Improving_Productivity_Through_More_Effective_Time.11.aspx and https://downloads.lww.com/wolterskluwer_vitalstream_com/journal_library/hcm_15255794_2004_23_1_65.pdf.

Leshed, G., & Sengers, P. (2011, May). ” I lie to myself that i have freedom in my own schedule” productivity tools and experiences of busyness. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 905-914). Retrieved from https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/1978942.1979077 and https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/sites.coecis.cornell.edu/dist/1/6/files/2015/12/p905-leshed-29uma94.pdf.

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(4), 667–683. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024192 and https://users.wfu.edu/masicaej/MasicampoBaumeister2011JPSP.pdf.

Schrager, S., & Sadowski, E. (2016). Getting more done: Strategies to increase scholarly productivity. Journal of graduate medical education8(1), 10-13. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4763375.

53 thoughts on “To Do Lists: The Simple Overlooked Motivational Technique

  1. I didn’t know about the downside of the to-do list. So, it’s interesting to read about it. And I’ve been doing the to-do list for a long time.

      • I liked the intrusive mind point that was a wow. I agree with the one con, that the list never ends and you feel far behind. And also that making the to do makes you safe to do the tasks whenever you need to know what all you have missed. Very comprehensive post that covered all points. Xx
        Isa A. Blogger

  2. I love to-do lists! I get so much satisfaction from crossing things out! I also find that when I’m really stressed out, they can help me feel more in-control. I moved across the country in the pandemic lockdown, and it was so stressful, but focusing on the things I could get done on my to-do list helped me feel like I was doing what I could to move forward. Thank you for sharing all the research backing this up! It’s so validating!

  3. I love a good to-do list. I start one at the beginning of every month, then update it on Fridays to capture anything I didn’t accomplish during the week and then update it each morning before my day begins. It keeps me on track and helps me feel productive.

    Crystal | http://www.amazingbaby.app

  4. Making list is skill that needs mastering. I remember my first conference planning when I for few times thought this list will never end it was depressingly long, but in the end I would have forgot a lot small essential details without it (like blank paper/notebooks for guests to make notes).
    After that in major cases I have made lists within list so the glance of it wouldn’t be so depressingly long, but I can always check bigger tasks minor details quickly. Example set up guest tables and under it in detail, what needs to be on the table pen, paper, material, freebies.
    I feel old – I use Excel for making lists for biger projects 🙂

  5. I live by my to do list and I recognize all the benefits you mentioned. It keeps me structured and it makes it way easier for me to prioritise. Since I use an online tool for my lists and I add priorities based on the Eisenhower Matrix, I don’t really have trouble with the anxiety of not knowing where to start.

  6. I love to-do lists, so I love that you highlight the ways lists help us become more productive as we go into each day with the motivation to get done what we know needs to get done. However, I also connect with the cons of to-do lists; I am guilty of making lists but not following through. Thanks for sharing both sides of the conversation!

    • The Virgo in me loves structure and organization. However, to-do-list does not work for me. The same is true for New Year’s resolutions. I go with the flow and work around my intrusive thoughts. While task list eases anxiety and promotes a sense of accomplishment and motivation, they sometimes doesn’t work for everyone.

  7. Great post! I work best when I have a routine or list in place, and I always create a to do list for myself. I’ve started doing it on my phone so that I can note things down as soon as I want to- and I completely agree with the points you’ve made here, thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. Excellent post. I am usually writing to do list, they help me to stay focused on things that need to be done. Love that you included both positive and negative side to doing to do lists. Thank you for your sharing.

  9. I love a to do list. I’m a pen to paper kind of gal. For me, the writing of the list is what works for me. Once written on the paper, it’s written in my mind so I don’t actually need the list. I also like the never-ending effect of the list. When I do have an electronic list, I cross things off and move then down the page, but keep them there. For me, there’s satisfaction in seeing everything that’s been accomplished grouped together. I appreciate the extra details you shared on the how’s and why’s lists are useful.

  10. A good look at to-do lists because it’s not always a one-way street to better productivity and wellbeing. They can be anxiety inducing and unhelpful if not done in a way that suits you and your situation, like overfilling them or not re-reading it in the morning and loosing track of what you need to actually do. This bit – “like they were moving forward while always being behind” – is how I feel since getting sick. Nothing I do is ever enough and I never, ever get everything done. Perhaps some of the problem is misaligning our goals with our abilities and time allowance, ie. having unrealistic expectations.

    I still love to-do lists, I often can’t focus too well without them as it gives me the structure I need (and reminds me what I need to do because my memory like a leaky bucket and nothing stays in for long 😆

    Caz xx

    • It’s important to consider setting realistic timeframes for everything, especially if your health is an issue. That way you can avoid setting yourself up for failure

  11. I’ve recently come back to using to-do lists because I need the mental order it brings. I never really connected them with actually being a motivational/mental well-being tool until recently and felt the benefits myself. Thanks for sharing this!

  12. Such a great + informative post! As I sit here trying to do work, I can definitely attest that lists helps. It also helps to prepare them properly + you just reminded me to get back on that. Thanks for this!

  13. I recently moved too! I had a 2 Page A4 Sheet with all the to-dos. Who would have thought that moving would be so difficult? Anyways I use a MasterSheet, which is obviously overwhelming. So each day I make a daily list from the MasterSheet with up to 5 points. 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  14. I don’t know that I would be able to get anything done if it wasn’t for my to do lists. I have ADD and can easily get distracted with the million other little tasks that need to be done around the house. By making a clear to do list (and not allowing myself to add anything to it that day once it has been made), I do much better at staying focused and actually getting things done.

  15. To be very honest, I was in a procrastination zone for the last 2-3 days and I came across your blog. I was instantly reminded that I need to sit and jot down my tasks on paper and not let them float aimlessly in my mind. I love preparing to-do lists. I think it really affects my productivity and allows me to prioritise the important or easy-to-do tasks. In the past I have tried using apps for this but I prefer using a pen and paper – the satisfaction of crossing out the completed tasks is just too good when its handwritten 🙂

  16. LOVE lists! I write mine on post-its with a Sharpie (I carry these in every bag I own). I LOVE wadding them up and throwing them away when they’ve served their purpose. And I have been known to do something not on the list, only to add it so I can cross it off! 🤣 Great post. ✌️

    • Nothing wrong with adding something last minute so you can cross it off. Also, using post-it notes is an interesting way of doing it, but if it works it works

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