The Secret Psychology on Why We Love Completing To-do Lists

Sara Davis avatar
on May 11#best-practices
Checklist usage and the psychology

Whether it's a personal project, professional project, school project, or any other day-to-day task, the satisfaction from completing off your to-do list remains. That feeling you get when you cross the X with a sharpie or click the complete button - is one of fulfillment, joy, and accomplishment. So have you ever wondered the psychology behind using checklists? And, if so, how can you utilize this information to make you more productive? In this article, we'll outline both the psychology behind using checklists, as well as how you can take advantage of this information to get more done.

In our former blog post, "How to write a project objective" we discussed how setting SMART goals helps you to achieve the outcome, you set out for in your projects. The psychology behind checklists is similar. By breaking down your projects into bite-sized, tackle-able chunks, you are set up for success.

“Subtracting from your list of priorities is as important as adding to it.”

- Frank Sonnenberg, Soul Food: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

So what's going on in our brains?

The answer: dopamine.

When we aren't feeling motivated, we often aren't accomplishing our goals. Motivation is crucial to getting things done. When we complete individual tasks, our brains release dopamine which causes positive feelings such as happiness, pleasure, and motivation.

When we are positively motivated to do something, we not only take pleasure in completing the task at hand, we also attribute positive feelings towards repeating the process. This process is called "self-directed learning." This is why achieving small wins along your projects keeps you motivated to continue working on the projects. Checklists work like this. By completing the action items on your checklist you'll be motivated to keep knocking off those tasks.

Making checklists fun

At a psychological level, completing tasks in our checklists gives us intrinsic satisfaction. Make your tasks more appealing for YOU personally. Is there a specific task that you don't like doing? Is there a task that gives you more satisfaction when completing than another?

Do a quick inventory of your to-do lists as you create them next time. Make sure you break up your to-do lists to have not only quick and easy tasks but also tasks that are more rewarding as well. Vary up your tasks with tags, colors, subtasks, or even come up with fun naming conventions. Whatever you do, find a way to make your to-do lists more actionable for you. By understanding yourself, plus the psychology behind checklists, you're on your way to being more productive in no time.

“Before you eat the elephant, make sure you know what parts you want to eat.”

- Todd Stocker, Refined: Turning Pain Into Purpose

Checklists for everything

complete checklist action items from meetings

Whether you are planning a vacation, work project, or shopping list - checklists make it easier for you to accomplish your goals. When dealing with customers, our customer support agents have a 5 step checklist for call handling while speaking to a customer.

In Workast, you can quickly and easily create checklists in our Notes or Meetings extensions, or view your tasks in a list view from the home page. From our Notes or Meetings tabs, you can quickly and easily turn any checklist item into a task with a due date, assignee and more. Make the most out of your meetings, and turn notes into actionable tasks with Workast.

Write out your tasks so they are meaningful and motivating. You want to look at your list and be motivated to get stuck in and do the work.

*Bonus tip: You can make a list right in Slack too!

Forgive yourself - count the wins

If you have a tendency to see the overdue items on your to-do list, and get overwhelmed - that's okay. You aren't alone. Forgive yourself, and focus on the wins. By focusing on the positive rather than what may feel endless, you'll be able to stay driven towards completing the goals. Don't forget to be kind to yourself. Practice makes perfect.

And there you have it! By understanding that dopamine is released as we complete our to-do list action items, you can use this to craft and plan your days. Make your tasks appealing to you. Get the satisfaction that comes from completing the action items that you care most about. Tweak your to-do lists to work for you.

You don't have to become a project manager to be able to manage projects!

Do you have a good example of how you've used checklists to increase your productivity? Or how you keep your tasks motivational specific to you? We'd love to hear them. Drop us a line or shoot us a tweet to have your story told!

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