Discover the
comfort and sense 
of accomplishment of a finely-made
and highly-effective to-do list.
January 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

There are thousands of articles, hundreds of apps, and no shortage of suggestions on how to make an effective to-do list. There are bucket lists, shopping lists, lists of jokes that satirize to-do lists, and even lists of quotes by famous people talking about lists (no kidding). Despite the widespread use of to-do lists, the scientific principles behind what makes a to-do list effective (and not effective) aren’t always clear and sometimes are not always present.

To-do lists serve a number of purposes. They can help you keep track of everything that you need to get done. They can help you prioritize what you need to get done first. They can less your mental load and worry.  They can foster a sense of accomplishment, increase your productivity, and even motivate you to do more.  These are among the reasons why students report that the daily use of a to-do list is one of their most effective strategies (and one of the easiest to implement).

Two types of lists and how to make them: 

The two most important types of lists are a tracking list, in which you write down everything that you need to get done at some point, and a daily 3 to 5-item to-do list, which prioritizes what you are going to get done on any given day.

How to make the tracking list:

The tracking list should have two or three columns — for school, work and the rest of your life (e.g., chores, activities with friends, etc.). The purpose of this tracking list is to create a record of everything that you have to do, are expected to do or would like to get done so that you don’t overlook or forget something important. This can be done on paper (or a phone app if you are prone to losing lists).

A tracking list, on its own, is not going to help you very much and won’t help you get much done. After all, it is just a list of things you have to do. On its own, a tracking list can actually cause you a lot of stress, demotivate you, or just remind you of what a mountain of work you have to do and how far behind you may actually be. Even just thinking about a tracking list can be overwhelming. (This is one of those times when relaxation breathing and fact-checking can be helpful).

However, a tracking list is the first step in helping you reduce your mental load (and worry about forgetting something). Research has shown that unfinished goals cause intrusive thoughts, known as Zeigarnik intrusions, which, when completed, will reduce these intrusive thoughts.  The next step is to move items from your tracking list to something like a semester schedule of due dates or deadlines.

How to make the 5-item, daily to-do list

The daily to-do list is your concrete action plan for the day. The makers of phone apps will argue that a to-do list on the phone is better since you cannot lose it, but that might just be because they would like you to use their phone app. We recommend a small piece of paper (or a post-it note that you can stick it on a book, binder or computer if you are worried about losing it). A post-it note on your computer is an ongoing reminder of what you need to get done and a constant motivator as you cross off the items on your list.

What should go on the 5-item list?
What goes on your list matters. You should pick five things that are important for you to get done during the day.

Small and concrete: For something to get done during the day, it needs to be relatively small and very concrete (e.g. find ten research papers on the prevalence of poverty) for my paper in sociology. Just writing down the research for my paper is too big and too vague. The more concrete you can be, the better. Finding ten good research papers that you can actually use could easily take an hour.

Easy and difficult: We all have a tendency to put off whatever is hard or boring. But if you do that, you will leave all of the boring and difficult stuff to later on, and that may be far too late. As a rule of thumb, at least two of the five things on your daily to-do list should be boring or hard.

Keep in mind that most things turn out to be less boring than they seem when you start, and if you make sure that your task is small and concrete, it won’t seem as difficult.

When should I make the list?
You should have your 5-item to do list complete and ready to go by the time you finish your breakfast. That means making your 5-item to-do list the night before (and putting that list on your computer the night before so that you don’t lose, forget it or blow it off) or making that to-do list while you have your coffee in the morning (and then putting that list on your computer the night before so that you don’t lose, forget it or blow it off).

Keep in mind: The to-do list is an important part of a storyboard. The to-do list is your action plan. When your first block of study time occurs, you need to have a clear plan about what you will do during that block of time. You don’t want to be spending your time making a to-do list, when you could be completing your to-do list.

What do I do when I am done?
If it is the end of the day and you got everything done, then your should reflect on your accomplishment. You set out to do five things and you got them done. If you do that everyday (okay most days), every week (or even most weeks), what you get done, will add up fast.  

If you do get your list done and you still have time in your schedule, then pick 5 more things from the bigger list. Even if you only have an extra 40 minutes, picking three small things, adding them to the list and crossing them off as you get them done, will be really motivating!

What makes ‘to-do’ so very effective?

To-do lists can help to increase your sense of accomplishment and productivity while decreasing your stress. There are a number of important and powerful effects, all of which are in action every time to make and complete even the shortest of to-do lists. 

First, the simple act of writing down what you have to do rather than trying to remember it will reduce your cognitive load. Those unfinished activities that you carry around with you that nag you throughout the day are known as Zeigarnik intrusions, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a 27-year-old studying experimental psychology in Berlin.  

Both the original studies conducted by Zeignark and even more recent studies 2 have shown that unfinished goals cause intrusive thoughts which interfere with other activities. This more recent research was conducted at Florida State University and that as soon as people make a plan for those unfinished goals, they experience less interference with their activities and that the more serious the plan was to get those unfinished goals completed, the less interference they experienced. And most importantly, people actually executed and completed their plans and experienced no more intrusions.

Second, the five-item to-do list, in which you also specify when you are going to complete those items (i.e., by the end of the day), represents a concrete action plan, which research has shown is more effective than just trying to do your best.3,4  Simply writing down your goals has been shown to improve productivity at both school and in the workplace.3,4   

Third, specifying that you are going to relax only after completing your list, introduces a powerful reinforcer to work to get that list down while minimizing the chance that you procrastinate on what you have to do in favour of doing something more fun rather than what is on your list. 4   

Finally, crossing off the items that you complete as you complete them utilizes the well-documented benefits of progress monitoring, which has been shown to be one the most effective strategies for changing any kind of behaviour. 5


Pit falls: 

Although making a to-do list is fairly easy, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid. 

#1. Waiting too long to make a list

The powerful benefits of a to-do list start as soon as you write down those tasks. As soon as you write down five things, you have lessened your cognitive load and committed yourself to an action plan.  If you don’t have an action plan in place by the time you have some time to knock off items on your list, you will waste valuable time making a list when you could be spending your time knocking something off your list. Make your list either the night before or at the beginning of your day. 

#2. Spending too much time deciding what to put on your list.

If you think about everything that you have to do, it is easy to get paralyzed trying to decide what to work on first.  If you are not sure, pick the one thing that needs to get done now. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just get it done and then move on to the next one.  If you have two things that are really equally urgent, then pick the thing that is worth more (e.g., a paper worth 30% is more important than a quiz worth 10%)

#3. Items on the list are too big. 

Don’t write down massive things, like writing an entire paper.  What you write down on a list needs to be small, such as writing an outline, finding ten research papers on your topic, or writing the introductory paragraph. The idea is that you break big tasks (like writing the paper) into smaller tasks (like doing some research) into tasks that can get done by the end of the day.  Keep in mind it usually takes twice as long as you think to do anything. If you think you can make all of the flashcards for the weekly quiz in an hour, it is probably closer to two hours.  Break things down into smaller chunks. 

#4. Don’t forget to write down your motivator. 

The to-do list in the figure includes “chill” at the end of the day. This is a reminder about what you have to look forward to at the end of the day, and it is also a reminder that you are going to wait until the end of the day.

#5.  Don’t forget to cross things off as you get them done. 
Crossing things off (and seeing that you have crossed them off) is one the most motivating aspects of a to-do list. For this reason, a hand-written post-it note is going to be better than a phone app (which may be very handy for creating the tracking list). With a hand-written list, there is a constant reminder (and motivator) of what you have already done and what you need to get done by the end of the day. 

#6. Avoid phone apps that remove what you have done.
Sometimes, phone apps that have to-do lists will delete the item from the list once you have marked it as completed. In this instance, the to-do list is only a reminder of what you haven’t done rather than what you have done.  


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Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024192
Zeigarnik, B. (1927). Uber das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen [On the retention of completed and uncompleted transactions]. Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1–85.
3 Schippers, M. C., Morisano, D., Locke, E. A., Scheepers, A. W. A., Latham, G. P., & de Jong, E. M. (2020). Writing about personal goals and plans, regardless of goal type boosts academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 60, 101823. 
4 The Impact of Goal-setting on Worker Performance—Empirical Evidence from a Real-effort Production Experiment. (2015). Procedia CIRP, 26, 127–132.
 Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198–229.


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