Are you a fan of lists? If so, I doubt you’re enamored with them as much as the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco.

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists. –Umberto Eco

In an interview, Umberto explained that lists are often regarded as relics of primitive cultures — simplistic devices that don’t belong in our modern society. Despite this, the simple form of the list persists over time because of its “irresistible magic.”

It is often easier to express ourselves using lists when we struggle to do so. Thanks to lists, we can make sense of the world around us, as Umberto says. Whenever we go on vacation, plan a trip, need to buy food, or accomplish a task at work, we create a list.

In short, the habit increases our productivity on a daily basis.

The Psychology of Lists

“We know from prior work that people report on average having about 15 ongoing goals and projects at any given time,” says researcher and psychology professor E. J. Masicampo. Keeping track of all those goals, each with its own set of milestones, is a lot. “We also know that even one unfinished goal can be a burden, demanding our thoughts and attention.”

Having a to-do list allows us to offload some of that burden, which makes it quite appealing. “When we write information down (on a to-do list or post-it), or pass the information along to another person (assign someone a task or ask someone to send us a reminder), or transfer our list to some external space (ask our virtual assistant to add a reminder), we feel relieved from the need to hold onto it mentally,” he explains.

With so many things to do every day, our ability to remember them is not enough. You will be reminded of what you need to accomplish as you work on your to-do list.

“When we check things off, it’s proof that we were able to get stuff done, making us feel good,” adds Masicampo. “I don’t know anyone who has tested the dopamine high directly, but I think it is reasonable to suspect that there is some physiological or emotional benefit to organizing our tasks and goals externally, whether it be through increased dopamine or reduced stress.”

The Darkside of Lists

“There are many reasons to suspect to-do lists are effective, even if just as a way to keep us aware of our goals,” Masicampo says. “There is plenty of work that suggests simply maintaining awareness of our goals helps us be disciplined and successful.”

“If there is a downside to to-do lists, I think it is that they do not go far enough toward committing us to do the work,” he elaborates. A to-do list can be a way to say, “I’ll get to it later.” However, in some of my unpublished work, I’ve seen that postponing tasks like this is not great for attaining our goals.”

The problem only gets worse when your list is extremely long. Having too many options can lead to procrastination, for instance. In their research, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that too many choices reduce shoppers’ likelihood of buying anything.

However, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. So let’s go over a couple of more reasons why you should cut your to-do-list in half:

First, you’ll get things done.

You can actually accomplish more if your to-do list is smaller. For example, put together a short list of three crucial tasks you absolutely must accomplish today instead of listing a million other things you need to do. Not only will you achieve these tasks, but you’ll feel like a million bucks afterward.

You can focus on what’s important.

A limited to-do list forces you to evaluate your actions. As a result, your attention will be highly focused and concentrated because there will be no fluff to distract you.

You’ll have fewer worries.

No more headaches, consternation, or indecision to bog you down. The possibilities are endless for making things, creating, exploring, and having fun!

There are outdated items on your to-do list.

Keeping a to-do list is like keeping a record of history. During specific periods of your life, they reflect who you were (and are). The to-do list you create today will be very different from the one you create a month or even a year from now. Right now, you may have a few tasks on your to-do list that have no bearing whatsoever on your present situation.

How to Trim Your To-Do-Lists

1. Pick your top three priorities.

The night before, make your to-do list. It’s OK to write business and personal stuff on the same page. Just split them up.

After you’ve done that, grab a highlighter and ask the following questions:

  • To achieve my goal, what must I do?
  • What must you do to get there?

Identify only three things you will do. When I say identify three things — You’re going to commit to yourself, and you are going to do it. Be cutthroat about this. As soon as we have more than seven options, our brains start getting overwhelmed.

Furthermore, the short-list approach keeps you focused on your most important tasks. Additionally, shorter lists also can help you overcome procrastination. Finally, the 3-Item List also provides a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Most importantly, you need to complete these three things before looking into anything else.

2. Use the 4Ds of time management.

Whenever you receive input, such as an email message or meeting request, you can use the 4Ds of time management to your advantage.

  • Do. Take action now to make it happen.
  • Delegate. It should be delegated to someone with better qualifications or bandwidth.
  • Defer. For important but not urgent tasks, schedule these for later.
  • Delete. It’s often referred to as a “drop,” but it’s the same concept. Remove all those unnecessary and unimportant commitments from your life.

3. Cross off half the things on your to-do list.

Even though this may seem heresy, solid research is behind it. Your mental attention is divided between all the items on your to-do list. While you aren’t aware of it, your brain is doing everything behind the scenes. As a result, your overall productivity has slowed down.

Furthermore, the to-do list items you need to work on are most likely not to be completed. How come? There is an overwhelming urge to reduce the size of that massive list. In turn, to feel like you’re making progress, you’ll begin with the easy stuff.

When you examine your to-do list carefully, you’ll discover some items are such a low priority that they’ll never get accomplished. The more you cut, the better.

So, take a few minutes and decide the ten things you want to eliminate from your to-do list.

4. Follow the 2-minute rule.

Originally introduced by David Allen in “Getting Things Done,” this is a straightforward concept. Whenever you can do something in less than two minutes, do it rather than putting it off.

Furthermore, you can use this technique to stop procrastinating and form new habits, as James Clear explains. A good example would be to tie your shoes rather than proclaiming to run three miles.

5. Set a time limit.

Parkinson’s Law states: “work expands to the time allotted for it.”

For example, I might check my inbox before lunchtime, around 11:00 a.m. However, I only allow myself 30 minutes to catch up on emails from earlier in the morning.

6. Assign due dates.

Put a due date on every task. Prioritizing tasks is easier when you know when they are due.

You might not think that due dates aren’t required for every task. But they can be helpful anyway for two reasons.

In most to-do apps, each list shows what’s scheduled for today, tomorrow, and the following week. As a result, you’ll be able to see everything that needs to be done today and see what’s ahead. Feeling overwhelmed by everything due next week? Defer or delegate some tasks if you need to.

In addition, assigning due dates to your tasks allows you to plan out your week effectively, which is beneficial when it comes to time management.

7. Put tasks on your to-do list, not goals.

It matters what you put on your to-do list. Rather than setting objectives and goals on your lists, include tasks on them.

Knowing the differences between them is key to doing that.

The main objective of goals is to achieve big-picture outcomes. However, in most cases, they are difficult to assess. For example, learning Spanish would not be very effective if you put it on your to-do list.

To accomplish a goal, objectives must be met. Objectives are more specific and quantifiable than tasks, making it easier to confuse them. An example of an objective is “be able to speak Spanish for three minutes about my favorite baseball team.”

So what exactly are tasks?

A task is an action you take to achieve a goal. Once you’ve broken down an objective, you’ll have your tasks. It’s usually a single event — although it can recur. For example, “read Spanish for 30 minutes” or “learn three new Spanish verbs.”

8. Create a done list.

To-do lists are the opposite of done lists. Instead of listing everything you need to accomplish, you list everything you’ve already accomplished. A done list can be kept in several ways (and I’ll share a few with you), but before I tell you how, let me explain why I do it.

  • To know if/when you accomplished something. In turn, you’ll feel more motivated.
  • It helps us deal with our unfinished to-do lists to move forward.
  • It allows us to identify what is causing us to lose focus.

To get started with a done list, follow these five steps:

  • Start each day by thinking of one crucial thing you must accomplish
  • Review your calendar. Schedule the tasks you have to complete and decide when you can do them.
  • Make a list of other tasks you must complete, but keep it short and reasonable.
  • Keep track of your assignments throughout the day by ticking them off. Make a list of things you do that you didn’t schedule and check them off as you go.
  • If you missed anything, add it in every evening. Don’t forget to celebrate your small victories.

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