Do you create to-do lists with the intention of organizing your tasks and relieving stress? According to research and interviews(link opens in new tab/window) ↗, it turns out that to-do lists can actually make us more stressed because they don’t account for how long tasks take. There are tips for making the lists in planners more effective–as Michael Greschler, director of SMARTS, says, we should use planners as planners and not just as due daters!
While brain dumps or listing out all our tasks are good first steps in organizing ourselves and our schedules, it is important to take time to prioritize tasks, break down tasks into steps, and estimate how long they will take.
Step 1: Prioritize
After a brain dump, take time to categorize your list into obligations (have to’s), aspirations (want to’s), and negotiations. Sorting tasks and activities in this way helps make it clear where to begin. Once you know your starting point, you can move on to step 2.
Step 2: Break Down Tasks
It is easy to create to-do lists without considering that each task could contain multiple sub-tasks. When tasks go unfinished, it can create unneeded stress and pressure. According to the Zeigarnik Effect(link opens in new tab/window) ↗, unfinished tasks tend to linger in our minds and interfere with our ability to move forward. One way to counteract the Zeigarnik Effect is to break down each task into parts and schedule each sub-task into a planner or calendar.
Step 3: Estimate
When scheduling sub-tasks into a planner, remember to estimate how long they will take. This is a step that is often missed when using a planner as a due dater. Estimating the time pays off—we are more likely to complete a task if we know exactly when we will start and how long it will take.
While setting up to-do lists with executive function strategies may take time upfront, you will reduce stress and save time in the long run. For more information about these lessons, check out the SMARTS Curriculum.
- Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate
SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org
Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org