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The Psychology of To-Do Lists

Posted by EddiePrentice on August 12, 2014

Ever gone to bed with a great idea and woken up in the morning having forgotten what it was or that you even had an idea at all? This happened to me in my early days of management when my head was spinning with new daily challenges. My boss at the time suggested taking a little notebook with me everywhere and to write down my thoughts on the hoof. In particular he suggested keeping it by my bedside table as an aid to a good nights sleep i.e. if you do wake with a brainwave write it down and then get your head back on the pillow and relax.

I subsequently became an obsessive list writer. Every day over two decades I wrote down on a clean sheet of paper a “to-do” list of things I wanted to address that day. This was not just about making sure I didn’t forget anything it was also about motivation and reward. Every time I crossed an item off my list there was a great sense of satisfaction, that I was achieving something with my time. I sometimes played little games to make myself feel better, such as doing easy stuff first so that visually it looks like I am making fast progress. Some days I got through my list and when I did’t the remaining items go on to the next day’s list. Up until about a year ago this was how I ended and started my working day.

There is scientific evidence that the act of planning activities through to-do lists reduces the burden on the brain. I definitely subscribe to this view. However, writing things down on paper is a very personal activity. To get things done invariably means involving others. How do I get them to act? How do I monitor that they are doing what’s required? How can we be better at meeting deadlines? I started looking at alternatives to my paper based list. I am now in a completely different world of shared to-do lists which has had a transformational effect on productivity. All thanks to IBM SmartCloud!

The pen and paper has gone and I am now not drafting my to-do’s daily but continually. IBM SmartCloud is community based collaboration software which facilitates the sharing of knowledge and information. At Globocol we run all meetings and projects through SmartCloud. The real value of this is in the community aspect. It cuts through organisational silos and hierarchies and offers greater transparency.


Image: IBM SmartCloud - Sample Activities app screenshot

The transformational aspect for us has been the focus on actions and deadlines. This is where the Activities app in SmartCloud comes in to its own. What it offers beyond my old paper based to-do list is:

  • You can set deadlines and be alerted when you miss a completion date (in bold red type).
  • You can share your to-do’s with colleagues so they can see what your timelines are and when you have competed tasks.
  • Equally, you can view others' actions. If you know their schedule you know when to expect completion.
  • You can edit completion dates if needs be, communicating that to others.
  • The very fact you have a “to-do” option really does focus attention on actions rather than simple dialogue. The software forces a series of questions along the lines of “what do we need to do?”, “who is responsible?” “what’s our deadline?”
  • You save on paper!

The personal psychological drivers and benefits of my old paper lists are still there but now you are not just driven by satisfying yourself, you have to publicly prove yourself to others. This transparency is a pretty strong factor in why productivity improves. Others quickly become aware if a particular task is late and it means omissions get addressed faster.

One thing is clear to me. When you have multiple tasks and competing requests on your time, creating a to-do list will make you more effective. Social collaboration software offers a transformative opportunity to multiply that effect many times over.

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