Want to be More Effortlessly Productive? It’s Time to Ditch That To Do List

by Donna Middleton

The pale yellow torpedoes of daffodils-to-be are exploding from the soil, and as spring is springing in earnest, our levels of natural productivity are awakening from their winter slumber. 

Getting into the flow of being more effortlessly productive can be a hard thing to describe. Too much pressure can pummell us back down into the mud as opposed to propelling us forward. 

As tasks, ideas and activities bubble up, pinning them down to a to-do list is second nature to most of us, but examining the motivation behind this behaviour and what we are really looking to achieve through our lists can be deeply revealing. 

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/y0mbo


Psychologist Bluma Ziegarnik observed our “brain’s obsession with pressing tasks” in the aptly named “Ziegarnik effect.” Humans are much more likely to remember the things which haven’t been completed than tasks which have. When life is less busy, this means our memory can often effectively do the work for us, but when things get frantic, this negativity bias can make the to-do list a ladder of anxiety and self-criticism. Simply put, once something is scrubbed off the list, so is our memory of our achievement, but there are many things left to worry about in its place.

This natural focus on the negatives may have helped us to survive when we were still legging it from bears, but it doesn't help us develop the sense of confidence in ourselves and the value of our work which is needed to be authentically motivatedand authentically productive. 

Introducing the concept of a “done” list might seem like a silly side quest as it’s not directly thrusting productivity forward, but recognising and acknowledging how much we achieve on a daily basis creates a fertile base to grow from as opposed to salting the fields with those destructive “never enough” feelings. 

While it’s often associated with passively watching the clouds drift by or wrenching legs into the lotus position, practising mindfulness can be a surprisingly effective way to loosen the tight grip of the do-to list on our lives. By being truly present in our actions, we are naturally more inclined to be more purposeful with the task in hand. This sense of calm focus requires a lot of gentle practice to acquire, but putting more stock in the here and now can make scribbling things to do in the future seem strangely redundant. 


Image credit: Reddit.com/stargazekitten


Of course, we all need to write things down. Events are planned months in advance and there’s joy in keeping busy and engaged. Without some planning, life becomes aimless or a never-ending relay race between almost-forgotten appointments and engagements. This is where the humble calendar comes in. 

Conceptually, there is a big difference between hanging things neatly on a date and time in the future and the simultaneously timeless, yet ever-pressing format of the to-do list. For the visual thinkers among us, calendars are a great way to graphically see how we use our time and what might be lacking. Personally, I highlight my working days blue and any fun evenings out, activities or trips a suitably vibrant hot pink. At the end of the month I colour in any luxurious gaps of sweet, lazy nothingness green and reflect on whether that felt like enough time to just…be. If not, I try to let the green fields grow the following month.

Thinking about time in a new way like this can be a liberating strategy which also leaves the to-do list feeling a bit old hat. 


Image credit: Reddit.com/dreamstorming


We will all have days where we find ourselves frantically scrawling things we need to get done on the back of old receipts, where we’re overloaded and just need to put the information somewhere that isn’t our frazzled brains… but perhaps the feeling of writing stuff down is more about an illusion of control in high stress situations than anything else. 

I like to think of these initial info dumps as more of a mental purge than a to-do list. Something to pick through after taking 5 precious minutes to have a cup of tea and pluck out maybe 3 things to focus on. Once they are consciously chosen and on your mind, you probably won’t even need to really write them down unless you’re very into bullet journalling and need something to press into your pages. 


Image credit: flickr.com/photos/flakyredhead


Let’s face it, staring at that one dreaded task on the master list that we’ve been putting off for months is only making us feel bad about ourselves. If it’s really that important, it’s not going to disappear into the ether anyway. Less pressure allows more flow. 


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