To-Do, or Not To-Do… Who Knew?!
January 17, 2012 by Kay Grossman

I have noted with great interest lately that productivity experts malign to-do lists as frequently as they promote them. Daniel Markovitz offers excellent insights as to why to-do lists don’t work in his recent Harvard Business Review blog What strikes me is that it mostly boils down to brain function and the benefits of knowing how to work with our natural brain-based proclivities.

Our brains are wired to keep us alive and safe. Without our conscious awareness, they scan the environment up to five times per second, looking for threats. When a threat is perceived, the emotional center fires up in preparation for us to fight or flee. As descendents of people who survived due to hyper-vigilance, that function served us well.

No need to be wary of pouncing tigers

Most of us in the modern age rarely need to be wary of pouncing tigers. However, we frequently encounter another type of threat—the kind inherent in certain tasks. Tasks that trigger emotions such as ambiguity, fear, and not knowing how to proceed are perceived as threats in our brains. The emotional brain reacts swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat, using glucose and oxygen to stay activated. Even low levels of emotion use up resources that are then unavailable to the thinking center of the brain necessary for doing most tasks.

This has a great deal to do with why typical, lengthy to-do lists don’t work. Their very nature triggers a range of emotions that interfere with our ability to activate to even start tasks. Most to-do lists present us with too many choices, setting us up for angst in the choosing process and regrets afterward. The three-to-four-word descriptions of each to-do item don’t provide enough information or context, thereby setting the stage for ambiguity. When we are uncertain about which task to choose, let alone how long the item will take, what the first step will be, what we need to know before we start the task, who else needs to be involved, or what priority the item merits, we activate the threat center of our brains which then de-activates the thinking, action-taking center.

Feel good, conserve energy – why to-dos don’t work

Other built-in brain traits, such as a desire to feel good and to conserve energy, also help explain why to-do lists don’t work. We naturally gravitate toward reward and away from challenge. Markovitz notes that most to-do lists include a wide range of tasks of varying priority and time requirements. We tend to select the shorter tasks because they promise more immediate payoff and to avoid the longer or more difficult tasks because we sense they will require more effort. This leaves potentially important tasks to languish on the list, which doesn’t serve us well in terms of productivity and effectiveness.

Markovitz suggests a resolution to the to-do list problems that I’ve advocated for years. He calls it “living in your calendar.” The underlying premise is to make tasks more concrete, specific, and grounded in real time.

Physically calendar key to-dos

The technique I recommend is to choose no more than three to five priority items from your to-do list to physically schedule into your calendar each day. Give them the time and space they merit based on your estimate of how long they’ll take. Break multi-step tasks into their component parts and schedule each part individually. This practice removes the emotional triggers that the brain perceives as threats, keeps your emotional brain calm, and allows your thinking center the glucose and oxygen it requires to get you into action to get things done.

Save the “excitement” of threat responses for other kinds of thrills. Safari, anyone?

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