To-do lists: why do we compile them?


This ritual 43-year-old Natalia never misses. Every Sunday evening after dinner, she takes an A4 sheet and neatly cuts it into six pieces – for five working days each, and one for household chores on Saturday. In the upper corner of each sheet, she puts the date, and below it – the tasks that need to be completed.

“Until I write all this down, it will be difficult for me to concentrate,” Natalya admits. “I feel lost if I don’t set specific goals for myself.” Natalia carries her lists in her purse and checks them ten times a day to see how her affairs are going.

“Recording on paper helps to retain something fragile and short-lived in memory,” says psychoanalyst François Legil. – We spend time trying to remember what we must do now and what we have already done. Lists keep us safe by backing up things that elude us. “

We treat the listed activities as homework. It helps us focus.

It is not difficult for the unconscious to get rid of the things that bore us. As Freud vividly demonstrated in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, we forget what we don’t want to remember. For some, lists are hedged against accidental memory lapses and are kept within tight bounds.

Like Natalya with her six sheets of paper, we take these things as our homework. “My natural state is laxity and eerie slowness,” she says. “And the lists keep me focused.”

Sabina, 28, realizes that lists narrow her free space, although they force her to be more collected. “I am a very careless person, and this activity allows me to overcome chaos and put at least some order in my life,” explains the girl.

But do lists bring any joy, or is it a form of punishment? Sabina admits that crossing out the next completed task with a black marker definitely gives her pleasure.

“Each crossed out line is clear proof that we have fulfilled our duty,” confirms François Legil. “This is both a sign that we are able to organize ourselves, and a justification for our daily existence. We stick to the list in the hope that the day will go according to plan, which has everything thought out to the smallest detail and there are no worrying gaps. This is how we try to convince ourselves that we are in control of our lives. “

“Being in a state of uncertainty is unbearable,” adds clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Stephanie Ayusso. – Therefore, we so need that social life was subject to regulations and everyone has their own role and their own tasks that are supposed to be performed. It is not customary for us to suddenly get carried away with something for no reason at all, to get involved in something right here and now, without relying on a certain result. “

To-do lists: why do we compile them?

Why do we rarely follow a plan?

But, of course, nothing ever happens the way we expect it to. Ask those who are obsessed with to-do lists if they manage to cross out their items on time? No, or very rarely. Why? It seems to us that by fixing our obligations on paper, we will make them inevitable. In essence, we endow the written words with magical power.

“We are inherently fickle,” explains François Legil. “And that’s why we are overcome by conflicting feelings, for example, the desire to complete the next task from the list and the pleasure of crumpling this list and throwing it into the trash bin.” It can be hard to resist the sweetness to break the rules.

Another reason why we don’t follow our plan is procrastination. Psychotherapist Bruno Keltz lists three reasons why we put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.

First, the simple fact that enjoyable activities are more seductive than important but boring ones.

Secondly, self-doubt: am I able to cope with the task that I have set for myself? Here, perfectionism is combined with the need to preserve self-esteem. By delaying solving the problem, we avoid the risk of failing or making mistakes and failing.

Thirdly, this is our passive-aggressive reaction to restrictions: we slow down, rebelling in the depths of our souls against the order, although, perhaps, we have established them ourselves.

But Stephanie Ayusso believes that we do not follow the program in cases where our plans are too vague or global.

What can you do to make lists really help?

“Break the goal down into stages,” advises Bruno Keltz. – Instead of “putting things in order in the bedroom” set a simpler task: “sort out the shelves in the closet.”

Bruno Keltz notes that our lists are often poorly structured and disordered. “Before asking why we haven’t made progress with them, it’s worth asking ourselves first: does all this really need to be done, and if so, when,” he says. – That is why I often advise my patients to divide tasks into three groups:

  • those that cannot be put off;
  • those that they will fulfill, if there is time;
  • the ones that they will do when there is nothing to do.

And at the end of the day it is useful to put on the list what we have accomplished in excess of the plan, contrary to our own expectations, and for which we can separately praise ourselves. “

In any case, it is helpful to remember one of the main features of the list: it follows the principle of infinity and eternal renewal. What happens if we have nothing left to do?

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