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The Power of the Checklist

29 Apr 2020 10:08 PM | Lesley Samms (Administrator)

Studies have shown that people perform much better when they write down what they need to do.

So, what makes the to-do list such an effective productivity tool?

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was perhaps the first to note the brain’s obsession with pressing tasks. The so-called “Zeigarnik effect”

He noticed we remember things we need to do, better than things we’ve done. This theory stemmed from observing that waiters could only recall diners’ orders before they had been served. After the dishes had been delivered, their memories simply erased who’d had the steak and who’d had the soup. The deed was done and the brain was ready to let go.

More recently, a study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety.


The pair observed that people underperform on a task when they are unable to finish a warm-up activity that would usually precede it. However, when participants were allowed to make and note down concrete plans to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the next task substantially improved.

The mental load is reduced and we can function at a much higher level.

Some people resist this kind of structure, however. They think it will affect their creativity or prevent them from being flexible. Time management expert David Allen – whose book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity - Believes these free-spirited creative types are quite simply wrong.

He believes anyone with a full schedule and no structure will struggle to cope. A system is needed – and scribbled notes on hands won’t cut it. It’s not enough to scrawl “bank” or “Mum” on a Post-it note, says Allen – you need more detail. Is it an email, a visit or a phone call, and for what purpose? If your to-do list isn’t clear enough and to the point, your tasks probably won’t get done – and they certainly won’t be prioritised.

A major downfall of the list can be chunking up – for example “Write my novel” is a pretty foreboding task; “outline first chapter of my novel” is far easier to cope with mentally!

Remember don’t try and eat the elephant in one go! It will be easier to digest if you break it down into bite size pieces

Dopamine is the key here.  Dopamine is a chemical messenger – Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells.

Motivation is the essential and irreplaceable element of success.

When we’re not motivated, we fail.

When we experience even small amounts of success, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, learning and motivation. When we feel the effects of dopamine, we’re eager to repeat the actions that resulted in that success in the first place.Neuroscientists refer to this as “self-directed learning.

When we are positively motivated to do something, we learn to take that same action to receive the same feeling. This is why achieving small goals is such an effective way to stay motivated during long-term projects and processes.

Or even during lockdown!

Checking items off of a checklist releases small amounts of dopamine that then fuel us to keep checking off more items, i.e. get more done!

Thus the saying “fail to plan and you plan to fail”

A great hack you can introduce to make your lists even more effective is gamification.

Gamification is the notion of tricking your brain by making it think you are playing and having fun.

An essential ingredient of gamification is rewards.

You must remember to reward yourself when you tick things of your checklist – your brain responds quickly to these rewards – but you must have integrity – the negative low is very low if you try to cheat yourself!

Another hack to trick your brain is to send your lists forward to your future self. You can do this via futureme.org. Select a date in the future to receive it back. Seeing the impact of your past to do lists in the future can give you a real sense of satisfaction and achievement on how far you have progressed, or a reality check about the importance of the kind of tasks you choose to prioritise and get anxious and overwhelmed by...

Lesley Samms MSc ANLP

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