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A brief history of the to-do list and how it can ease your work

Published: November 17,2020

Listophiles, you’re going to love this article. As for those of you who don’t use lists yet, you’ll probably want to give it a try after reading this article.

When you start your workday, you have one clear goal in mind: to get as many things done as possible. You start your workday reading your task list, taking a look at the list of people you need to email to get information from, having a glance at the list of new ideas you gathered from the brainstorming session from two days ago and starting to create a new list with other things you remembered you need to get done today.

Those are a lot of lists, that’s true. But what would we do without them? Whether there are tiny pieces of paper, sticky notes or some useful apps, they all help you keep things together and organized.

When did all of this start? What’s the origin of the to-do list and what things should you consider when creating one? Keep reading this article and you’ll find out.

The father of the to-do list

Benjamin Franklin is one of the best examples to think of when it comes to lists. He started creating them back in 1791. If you take a look at his to-do list, you will find it quite different from the ones we usually create today.

One of the lists he is famous for contains the so-called “virtues”, which he defined as life goals. He matched each task or action with a virtue, saying that this will significantly improve his life.

Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine was quite strict, as he set up specific intervals for working, meals and sleeping. He started his day at 5 AM, with the “Morning question: What good shall I do this day?” and ended it at 10 PM, with the “Evening question: What good have I done today?”

The Zeigarnik effect

It is named after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik and it was first documented in 1927. According to the study, it appears we have a better memory for tasks that are either not finished yet or that are interrupted by other tasks, compared to completed tasks. And everything started from one innocent observation: how was it possible for a waiter to easily remember everyone who had an unpaid order, but once all orders had been paid, he couldn’t remember any detail related to them?

A more common explanation to this experiment is that our unconscious mind keeps sending messages to our conscious mind, about some unfinished tasks. As some recent studies show, the unconscious mind asks the conscious mind to come up with a plan and finish those tasks or have those goals met. Once that plan is set, the unconscious mind’s job is done and is no longer sending reminders to the conscious mind.

4 simple tips to create better to-do lists at work

1. Break bigger tasks into smaller ones

The first thing to do when you take up a big project is to come up with a to-do list or the next steps to start the project. Take a step back so that you see the big picture and then start working your way into it. Detail each step, create tasks and break those tasks into smaller ones, if necessary.

You can always rely on sticky notes or agendas, but if you’re digital savvy, you’ll probably want to have an app to have your to-do lists always at your fingertips.

Did you know that OneDock can help you with this? It’s a desktop app organizer and it does exactly what the name implies: it brings everything in one place and helps you organize your workday activity.

2. Polish up your list

So you have a list of 20-something items and it seems that you still feel the need to add more tasks. Take a look at it. Maybe you’ve let yourself carried away. Maybe not all tasks are important and maybe you can turn three tasks into one. Delete any low or no-value items and put aside those nice-to-do tasks.

By doing so, you reduce your stress level and boost your productivity. Starting your day with a clear to-do list helps you focus better. You also avoid distractions or tasks that won’t bring any value to your project.

3. Prioritize your tasks

Your to-do list is clearer now, but can’t say you’ve finished it. You need to prioritize the tasks. Here you can create your system to mark the ones that need to be done first. You can number them, place some arrows indicating the high, medium and low priorities or come up with a system based on colours, where red means “needs to be done first”, orange is for tasks with medium priority and green or yellow is for tasks that can be done least.

4. Set up deadlines

Everything needs to be done within a certain period. But you need to establish the exact deadline for each task. And we’ll share a secret with you: try to put the due dates at least one day before your initially set deadline. This way you’ll have enough time to implement changes or feedback if any.

It would be even better if you can give an estimate for each task. Saying how much time you’d need to get it done, even though it’s something as simple as writing an email, will give you a clearer picture of your to-do list for the workday.

5. Be realistic

You need to be realistic with deadlines, estimates and number of tasks you can do in one day. The day has 24 hours for all of us. Don’t put more things on your list than you can complete in one day because you’ll only end up getting frustrated and more stressed for not being able to cross them off.

Many people agree that lists can help you organize and keep you from procrastinating. And while some will continue to see paper agendas as their most reliable friends, others may want to go digital and try some amazing tools. And one such tool is OneDock, the app that keeps everything in one dashboard and that can also be customized to your specific needs. How about trying this app today?


Lavinia Nica

Lavinia Nica - Copywriter / UX writer at Telekom Romania


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