Why your brain loves ordered tasks

Almost everyone finds it difficult to complete tasks. However, there are many among us who find it difficult to even figure out what has to be done in the first place.

In theory, the solution is the to-do list. It’s a tried-and-true method that’s lovely in its simplicity: figure out what has to be done and when, write it down, do the chores, and then check them off one by one.

Dr. David Cohen, a psychologist and writer, feels that his to-do lists, which must be written down and kept up to date (ideally in a diary), aid but do not fully resolve his difficulty with organization. He claims, “My family thinks I’m crazy, but without my lists, they’ve kept me in check.”

According to Cohen, there are three main reasons we love to-do lists: they provide us with structure and a plan we can follow; they reduce worry about life’s turmoil; and they serve as a record of our accomplishments for the day, week, or month.

Why your brain loves ordered tasks

In less harried days, our memories might have done the work. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was perhaps the first to note the brain’s obsession with pressing tasks. The so-called “Zeigarnik effect” – that we remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done – 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.

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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. As Bechman notes: “Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective.”

Some people resist this kind of structure, however. They think it will stymie their creativity or prevent them from being flexible with their working day. For time management expert David Allen – whose book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity has made him a cult figure in the field –these free-spirited types are plain 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.

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