To-do or Not To-do

Have you ever gone to the grocery store with a shopping list of 3 items in your mind thinking you don’t have to write those 3 things down because it’s simple enough to keep them in your head? Then, after checking a notification on your phone, found yourself wandering through the aisles, trying to remember that third thing you were supposed to buy? Then ended up buying a bunch of things you might need and finally remembering the third thing on the list… halfway home?

That’s expected.

Mental To-do List Is Not A Good Idea

When you keep a list in your brain, it has to be “refreshed” all the time, so that it’s always “in front of you”. Something like keeping things in the RAM of your computer for fast access, instead of a hard drive. Human brains are not very efficient at keeping lists in hand’s reach. This action employs the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is one of the last added features during evolution. As such, it hasn’t become optimized and energy-efficient yet. This means that it takes a lot of energy for a little bit of work.

Unfortunately, the development of humans is not going as fast as the development of computers. Our RAM is not getting any more efficient any time soon.  The problem is: we need our prefrontal cortex for creative thinking, mathematics, decision making, planning, etc. If your job is to be creative and organized, you need a work-around for this evolutionary limitation. Don’t waste energy on constantly processing tasks which you can simply write down!

Do a “brain dump”.

Brain Dump, To-do, And Other Lists

A brain dump is when you write a list of all the things you need to do, short term or long term. Literally everything you can think of. When you have it written down, you don’t have to worry about forgetting something, and your brain will love this sense of relief. This brain dump list is not a to-do list, because it is usually unstructured and not prioritized. You’ll have to allot some time to turn it into your to-do list, e.g. once a day for a couple of minutes. Whenever you find some time or realize that you have more stuff in brain dump than in to-do list, move points over to to-do list. Make sure you re-word the items so that it is clear what you need to do and that you order them by priority.

Now you have your to-do list.

Aside from your main to-do list and brain dump list, you might also like to keep:

  1. A “waiting for” list. It consists of things you’ve asked other people to do and are now not in control of but waiting for the response which might turn into more tasks for you
  2. A “worry” list. It comprises of things that are keeping you up at night or keep nagging while you are doing something else. Put them all on this list and schedule a time when you can think about those problems, solve them or turn them into actionable items which you will move to your to-do list.

Ok, but where do you write all of this down?

Old School And Modern Tools For To-do Lists

Writing a to-do list on a piece of paper is great because the feeling of ticking that box or crossing something out brings you much more joy and content than checking something in an app. Papers, however, get scattered, forgotten or end up with coffee mug rings on them. If you are old school and insist on pen and paper, that’s great, but make sure you have all your lists with you at all times. You might think of something for your brain dump list while drinking coffee with friends…

I opted for digital lists, with a heavy heart. Although I like ticking boxes manually, I don’t like taking a notebook everywhere with me. I do have my smartphone with me at all times though, so I make use of it. Trello is my weapon of choice because it lets me make as many lists as I want on one virtual cork board and add more info for each of my tasks. You can also use simple reminder apps which are available on any phone.

Is there a downside to all this?

Downside Of To-do List

Oh yes. Making lists feels like doing actual work, which it really isn’t. Just like tidying your desk, it is some kind of meta-work which facilitates and improves the actual work, but won’t put bread on your table… unless you actually clean for a living.

This is your limbic system acting up. Limbic system a very important part of your brain which is like an autopilot, enabling you to do well-rehearsed things like brushing your teeth or going to work using the usual route, without thinking about them. As such, it is very energy efficient, unlike the prefrontal cortex. But it has a big flaw: it enjoys stupid things like busywork and multitasking. These things make you feel efficient and productive, even though you are not getting anything done. Don’t let the limbic system rule your day. If you keep a to-do list, don’t embellish it endlessly.

Make sure you get to real work as quickly as possible!


“Clean the house” can be an item on your brain dump list. But before you move it onto your to-do list, you can separate it into: “Vacuum all rooms”, “Do laundry”, “Clean the fridge” and “Take out the trash”, or keep it as one item with multiple points on it. Why get specific? After all, you know very well what “Clean the house” means, you’ve done it so many times before. But when the time to do it comes, I guarantee you will be more eager to start if you have a detailed plan of what to do and in which order. Furthermore, it is always easier to start with something small. This is a trivial example, but if you apply the same principle to big project task you have been dreading and postponing, you will see how much easier you will start and finish it!

Agree? Disagree? Tell me what you think.

P.S. The subject of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system has been covered in a lot of literature, but I like it most in David Rock’s “Your Brain at Work” and Chris Bailey’s “The Productivity Project”. Have a look. If you don’t feel like reading hundreds of pages, check out my summary of “The Productivity Project”.

Does this content look familiar? This post was featured as a guest post on Rubik’s Code (here).

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