The Surprising History of the To-Do List and How to Design One That Actually Works

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to do list examplesThe list is the origin of culture. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. – Umberto Eco

When I was a kid, I read a book called The Listmaker. It’s about a young girl who uses lists to organize and make sense of her life. At the time I didn’t read any more into it besides the fact that this was an odd hobby for a pre-teen girl to spend so much time on.

Now, although I don’t remember the book that well, I do see much more significance in the humble list—especially after researching where they come from and why we make lists.

As I researched this post I realised how hard it is to pinpoint the origin of something as simple and widespread as the list (to-do or otherwise), but I did find out some interesting stories about how lists have been used in the past and why we find them useful in everyday life.

Why do we make lists as humans in the first place?

to do list examplesPhilosopher and novelist Umberto Eco is a big fan of lists and has some fascinating ideas about why they’re so important to humans:

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 explained in an interview that lists are often seen as relics of primitive cultures—simplistic devices that don’t belong in our modern day and age. However, the simple form of the list prevails again and again over time, because, as Umberto says, it has “an irresistible magic.”

When we struggle to express ourselves, we use lists. Like Umberto says, lists help us to make sense of the world around us. We create lists of the sights we see on vacation, the places we want to visit, the food we need to buy at the grocery store, and the tasks we need to get done. It’s a simple habit of increasing our day to day productivity.

We pack all the madness and ambiguity of life into a structured form of writing. In short making lists is a great way to increase our overall happiness and feel less overwhelmed.

Not only that, but we also form and challenge definitions of the things around us by making lists of their characteristics. For instance, if we were to describe an animal to a child, we would do so by listing characteristics like color, size, diet and habitat. Regardless of whether this matches the scientific definition of the animal or not, that’s how we make sense of it.

The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions. The essential definition is primitive compared with the list.

Benjamin Franklin, the godfather of the to do list?

Benjamin Franklin is a great example of someone known for using lists to encourage his own self-improvement. He famously detailed a thirteen-week plan to practice important virtues such as cleanliness, temperance, etc. Each day he tracked his progress on a chart.

Benjamin also set himself a strict daily routine, which included time for sleeping, meals and working, all set for specific times of the day. Unfortuantely, the demands of his printing business made it difficult for him to always stick to his routine, but this image shows how he aimed to spend his time:

to do list examples ben franklin

Lists for productivity

These days, we use lists for productivity as much as anything else: shopping lists, reminders, planning for events, and the to-do list are all variations on a productivity-based list that we use to help us get past procrastinating.

The to-do list in particular is one that we spend a lot of time and energy on perfecting. Somehow, we don’t seem to struggle when it comes to making a shopping list and buying everything on it, but getting the tasks on our to-do list done is a whole other ball game.

4 Top Tips to Write a to-do list that will actually help you get things done

Looking at the history of lists and how they’re used, we can glean some insights about how to create a to-do list we can actually complete.

1. Break projects into tasks, don’t succumb to the Zeigarnik effect

We kind of have a reminder system built-in to our minds that nags us about unfinished tasks, called the Zeigarnik effect. It sounds pretty cool that we already have this, but it’s actually not that reliable or healthy for us.

to do list examples

What really happens is that there’s a disconnect between our conscious and unconscious minds—the unconscious mind can’t plan how to finish the task, but it gets annoyed with the feeling of it being unfinished. To shake off that feeling, it nags the conscious mind with reminders about the task—not to finish it, but simply to encourage us to make a plan.

If you’ve heard of David Allen’s GTD method, you’ll be familiar with his concept of “next steps,” which is pretty much the same thing. It’s the process of breaking down a project or task into smaller tasks, and planning which one will be the next step towards completing the whole thing.

This abates the nagging of the unconscious brain, as it’s satisfied that at some point we’ll get onto that task, and we know exactly how we’ll do it.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings says the essentials of creating these do-able next steps are to make “a few very specific, aactionalbe, non-conflicting items.”

2. Prioritize ruthlessly

Maria’s post on the history of the to-do list also describes the story of a psychologist who gave a talk at the Pentagon about managing time and resources. Before the talk began, the psychologist asked everyone in the group to write a summary of their strategic approach in 25 words.

Apparently, 25 words was too little for the men to express their strategies, and the only response came from the single woman in the group, whose summary read as follows:

First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.

I’ve heard this approach suggested before in various places, and it always reminds me of the CEO I worked with at my previous company, who had a Post-It on his desk that read, “prioritize until it hurts.” in other words, learning the powerful skill of saying no. I’m not sure if he ever managed to do that, but I liked the approach.

To-do lists invariably crop up when we have so many things to do that we can’t keep track of them all in our heads (Aha! We’re back to Umberto’s thoughts on how lists help us to create order from the chaos of our lives!). Which means that we end up with lists far too long for us to complete.

Prioritizing ruthlessly seems to be the only way to actually get done what’s most important in the little time that we have.

3. “Plan ahead” – advice Charles Schwab paid $25,000 for

Here’s another cool story of how to-do lists evolved in the workplace:

Almost 100 years ago, the President of the Bethlehem Steel company in the USA was Charles M Schwab. His company was struggling with inefficiency and Schwab didn’t know how to improve it, so he called in Ivy Lee, a well-known efficiency expert at the time.

Lee agreed to help the company, with his fee being whatever Schwab felt the results were worth after three months.

Lee’s advice to each member of the company’s management team was to write a to-do list at the end of each day, which consisted of the six most important tasks to be done the following day. Then they were told to organize the list based on the highest priority tasks.

The next day, the employes worked through the list from top to bottom, focusing on a single task at a time. At the end of the day, anything left on the list would get added to the top of tomorrow’s list when the employees once again planned for the following day.

As the story goes, the company was so much more efficient after three months that Schwab sent a check to Lee for $25,000.

In your own planning, you can take Lee’s advice for free and use the night before to plan your workday. Setting out the most important tasks you want to complete the following day will help you to avoid time-wasters and distractions by knowing what to work on immediately.

4. Be realistic in your planning

Sometimes it’s nice to know that even our great heroes are fallible. This story about Benjamin Franklin’s struggles to keep up with his daily to-do list shows how important it is to be realistic about how much time we have and what our priorities are.

Franklin was known to be a meticulous tracker of his daily routine and his work towards the virtues he prioritized.

Unfortunately, the demands of his business meant that he didn’t always keep up with his ideal daily routine. He often got interrupted by clients and had to ignore his schedule to meet with them.

He also noticed that some of the virtues he aspired to practice, such as frugality—not wasting anything—took up too much time for him to live life as he wanted to. Preparing his own meals and mending his own clothes all the time, for instance, meant that he didn’t have enough time for business or his side projects.

The result of these conflicting priorities was unhappiness over not completing the tasks he set for himself. As a result, he had to re-prioritize, which is something we should keep in mind.

If we’re struggling to complete our to-do lists on a regular basis (we’ve all been there at some point!), we need to make a change to the list—make it more realistic.

Although a to-do list can be infinite, our time is not. We need to match the tasks we require of ourselves to how much time and energy we can afford to spend on them. This is where prioritizing can really come in handy, as well.

Starting to develop your own, personal daily routine is one of the most powerful ways to become a great list maker. You might find some inspiration from these 7 famous entrepreneurs and their routines.

Find a way that works for you

As with pretty much any kind of lifehacking or productivity topic I write about, individual mileage will vary. We all need to take into account our unique situation when experimenting with advice like this. For me, prioritizing and planning the night before has really helped. For you, being realistic might be more useful.

Bonus: Johnny Cash’s perfect, semi-efficient to do list

As a last example, I found a to do list from Johnny Cash. This wouldn’t necessarily be one we’d advocate to help you become more efficient. But then again, we can’t argue with Johnny Cash’s success, can we?

johnny cash's perfect to do list

How is your own relationship with to do lists? Let us know what works for you in the comments below.

Photo-credit: Mama Martha

PS: If you enjoyed this post, you might also like our recent article on 7 Simple productivity tips you can apply today, backed by science and Buffer’s most popular post ever on improving your happiness: 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science

  • senseyourenergy

    Personally I find that reminders on my phone throughout the day help more than to-do lists. I’m the kind of person who will often end up not doing something if not prompted to. I will definitely take the stuff in this article into consideration.

    Thanks,
    Brad
    http://www.senseyourenergy.com

    • Belle

      Good point, Brad! For time sensitive tasks, I definitely use reminders to make sure I get them done.

  • Brad Schwartz

    Check out David Seah – he’s got a great system. http://davidseah.com/productivity-tools/

  • Aradia Goseling

    I love the bit about prioritizing and breaking things up. Often I find myself staring at large projects with that “deer in headlights look” about how to solve the issue. Taking a large task in smaller steps ensures success for me and I get great satisfaction in crossing things out. Prioritizing is something I struggle with because “everything” feels important, but it leads to nothing getting done. The MIT idea I adopted from my business coach where in I take a total of 6 “must dos” for each day, and they’re divided up between my personal life & 2 businesses. I like to consider what of my tasks will make me feel most accomplished (or relieved) to have done that day and go from there!

    • Belle

      That’s a cool approach, Aradia! I’m splitting my day into tasks for two businesses and personal right now as well, and I find it’s a good way to make sure those big areas of my life all get some attention :)

  • http://teamspir.it/ Casandra Campbell

    I definitely feel that the traditional to-do list is flawed. It feels good to make it, but it doesn’t exactly increase productivity. We inevitably just keep going for the small tasks that don’t even belong on our to-do lists instead moving ahead with important, larger scale work. Your advice to break projects down and be realistic dead on!

    I do find the act of writing things down important because otherwise I’ll never remember. We use our teamspir.it logbook as a group to-do list. It’s a lot easier to get things done when your team is helping you stay accountable!

    • Belle

      I find the same thing at Buffer, Cassandra! Having a team to bounce off and support each other makes a big difference.

  • http://terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

    The more I keep track of my daily goals, in the form of a to-do list, and what I can accomplish in a good day – the more realistic I’m able to be about my daily productivity. I found that it doesn’t help to schedule 20 things a day, only to feel poorly when you can only accomplish 10.

    I’ve also been testing out the Bullet Journal method (http://www.bulletjournal.com/) – as someone who prefers writing my tasks in a notebook – this gives it the structure and ease of a digital tool. Amazing.

    • Belle

      Tera, I’m definitely a pen-and-paper person whenever possible. I’m going to check that out, thanks for sharing!

  • Mark Masavage

    Belle, this is a really great article. I enjoyed the parts about Benjamin Franklin; and, of course, I attempted to utilize the Franklin Planner a decade or so ago. It worked when I used it; however, I could never seem to prioritize prioritizing! I think I like Franklin’s original better the planner!

    • Belle

      Thanks Mark. Franklin is definitely a good example—I love how he prioritized working on personal virtues every day!

  • http://www.vidyasury.com/ Vidya Sury

    I AM my lists, Belle! I loved this post – and I don’t mind confessing I’d be lost without my (too much)to do lists. They keep me organized, prioritized and efficient, besides providing my family and friends a huge source of entertainment when they look at them. I find a great deal of comfort in making them – in fact, I find making lists therapeutic. My son makes visual lists – he sketches what he wants to do and I love them! :D As a toddler, his lists were similar to Johnny Cash’s :D And hey, I do write down :”cut nails”, “wash hair” etc. – because the joy of checking things off is amazing, besides being a huge motivator.

  • Vrashabh

    http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/01/to-do-lists-dont-work/ – an interesting(although highly opinionated :)) take on why to do lists dont work :) This is a really good article (like any other on the buffer blog :)) I wish there was a really easy way to prioritize ruthlessly though , my list is so heterogenous, its hard to! :) Once I could do that, then a sequential to do list would be great, any of the the hundred current apps/pen and paper would do. Interesting take on the “not” todo list :) Something like a daily list I would have to read when I get up in the morning :D

  • FDiaz Chicago

    I live in three- to four-hour blocks of time: morning, afternoon, after-dinner. My list is usually four items long. At my current job I make the list in black ink and write “OK” in red as I accomplish a task. I’m glad I don’t feel obsessive about list-making.
    Thanks!

  • http://makeapowerfulpoint.com/ Gavin McMahon

    Check out http://bulletjournal.com/ I haven’t tried it, but it looks like an interesting method for the really OCD list maker…

    • Zemledel

      Thank you! Looks really helpful. I’m going to give it a try. I was looking for a good system for written list (and still looking).

  • Tom Reber

    Nice article. I’d add to do those most important things first thing before you get hijacked with the smaller stuff. Focus early on the high impact stuff that way it always gets done…

  • http://www.sahilparikh.com/ Sahil Parikh

    I personally follow something called “Minimal Viable Tasks”. Plan for only a couple each day and ask the question – “will I be satisfied if I get these done?”. Anything more than this is a bonus :)

  • http://www.profound-impact.com/ Julie Gray

    Belle – I love this article! Interesting history with practical tips at the same time. I think the part about keeping your to-do list realistic is so critically important. Often I see my clients creating a 25+ item list which is in effect a ‘reminder list’ not a to-do list. Having a separate reminder list can help keep track of all those floating items and allow you to make a truly effective and realistic to-do list for your day.

    • Jimmy

      I am using proofhub.com to create my to-do’s list ..this tool has made my work a lot easier. It has more features like time tracking, proofing, casper mode, labels, sub tasks etc. Give it a try for free.

  • agarney

    Very interesting article. I’ve read a few in the last couple months about organization, priorities, and coincidentally, to-do lists. I found yours to be the most thought provoking and especially will take some of the information here and adjust my daily routine accordingly.

  • Carolina

    I personally love lists making!! thanks for this article!

  • AS48

    I love the Johnny Cash list. “Kiss June. Not Kiss Anyone Else.”

    I’ll be putting the tips provided into place this weekend. I’m a notorious list-maker – and a list-re-maker – and a list-tearing-up-and-re-making-again-type.

  • Chocolatier Roanne

    I think I must try putting ‘not…’ on my list too, because avoiding those things you set out to avoid is definitely success too.

  • http://www.sheepdressedlikewolves.com/ Andy Mort

    Brilliant post. Love seeing the different approaches and stories around the list making. I’ve tried many techniques. Generally the simpler the better, but it’s so easy to get carried away with convoluted systems. The idea of writing a priority list and crossing out everything from 3 down is great. Often just committing a todo item to paper is enough to quieten the Zeigarnik effect. It’s nice to know everyone struggles (and always have) with this stuff. Thanks.

  • Artak

    I have a unique love-relationship with a to-do list called Deed that I found about a year ago. I’ve tried a million online and this one has exactly what I need (well, most of it anyway).

    • сергей

      You mean this Deed?

  • LuisF_Mejia

    Great practical advice. Thank You!

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    Most of my to-do list just lists outline the details are not listed. Too much detail, I would be confusing.

  • Jess

    Great! I love the be realistic point. I think a lot of people get carried away with the admin of to-do-lists and then feel guilty when they haven’t done the 73 things they put on it. I had a boss once who said to write your to-list on a post-it, everything else is a waste. I have been using a web app called Luumin (http://luumin.com) that lets you make a special to-do-list from all your other lists of stuff you just want to do that day. This definitely helps me stay realistic, if I am scrolling my Daylist for miles, it’s not realistic!

  • http://www.stefanvetter.com/ Stefan Vetter

    Great article. My fav tool to keeo my life organized is Wunderlist.com.

  • MEA_BN

    Interesting and well versed.

  • http://www.rparkerconsulting.net/ parkerconsulting

    I find myself battling the Zeigarnik effect occasionally. Thanks to this article it has a name now.

  • Tonja

    I love lists and when I’m overwhelmed I make a list of the lists I need to make before I go crazy! At work I keep one master list of everything I need to do. Each day I make a short list of what needs to be accomplished that day from the master list. If it doesn’t get done, I forward it to the next day’s priorities list. If something gets forwarded too many days in a row, I reevaluate if it’s something I can delegate, or if it really even needs doing at all.

  • http://todowiz.biz/ Alvis Andersonq

    Let me recommend to my few friends who are really need this. Mine favourite is now a days http://todowiz.biz because its quick as other tools are taking so much time to sync