Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain

There are some psychological benefits to the simple act of drawing up a list of top-priority tasks—whether or not you actually accomplish them.

1. Writing Makes Your Memory’s Job Easier

When you take notes, you need to filter external information, summarize it in your head, and then write it down. Note taking helps us distill the information we hear and remember it better than we would if we’d just heard or read it.

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.

2. Planning Turns Abstract Goals Into Concrete Work

The challenge at work isn’t keeping busy hour by hour or day to day, it’s making sure we get the big-picture projects done that make work fulfilling. These are often broad, abstract goals that you hope to achieve over a period of weeks or months. The problem, though, is that they’re hard to achieve without breaking them into a coherent set of concrete actions you can take on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

As you think through these smaller tasks, other steps will often occur to you. They weren’t obvious until you actually thought about everything it would take to reach it. This process of thinking ahead about the steps involved can help prime you to do the work ahead.

3. It Helps You Clear The Weeds You Couldn’t See

Once 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 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.

Summing-up: Even if it isn’t that well organized and some of the items on it fall through, you’ll be able to look ahead to uncover whatever might be getting in your way that you couldn’t see. And that may be more important, in the long run, than crossing an individual task off of your list in the short term.

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