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The limited capacity of the mind

Watch out for becoming more organized. It could make you a more consistent achiever.


The human mind is tricky, unreliable and complex. It's capable of creating false memories, forgetting, and calculating probability very poorly. We're aware of this, too. We've all said "I forgot what I was about to say" or "I must have remembered it wrong" at some point. We don't fully trust ourselves and we admit it. Why do you lie to yourself, then?


You might think you don't need to write it down. Write what down? Anything that you need to do. Household chores, buying shampoo, filing your taxes, maybe it's finally getting rid of that awful shirt. "I don't need to put it on paper, I'll remember it", is what you say to yourself. Yet you pick the wrong battles and end up doing the exact opposite of what you should be working with.


The "don't worry I'll remember it" excuse is like saying that you prefer to crawl to the bus stop instead of walking because you don't like putting on shoes. Making a to-do list for the day takes less than a minute. Just take your phone or a piece of paper and write: Visit the bank. Remember to buy toothpaste. Call mom. There's your list. Do you still want to go back to crawling?


Enter the Zeigarnik effect


I used to think that to-do lists were ridiculous. I thought they were meaningless, only fueling some vague psychological reward of ticking a box after every silly task. That's exactly what to-do lists are, and it's why making them is such a powerful habit.


I started writing down my own daily tasks at the start of this year. I felt compelled to do it. It started as a way to keep track of my new habits: small things like logging my sleep and making the bed every morning.


But gradually, it expanded. I started adding in my essays, blog tasks, chores, and other important duties. Not only did it made me feel much less anxious – turns out there’s a good reason for this.

The scientific phenomenon for this is called the Zeigarnik effect. As much as pronouncing it makes your mouth feel like it got violated, the effect is fascinating: according to it, people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. This is why that unfinished essay taunts you in the back of your mind even though you’re supposed to be enjoying the movie you're watching.


Coincidentally, the Zeigarnik effect is also responsible for the power of cliffhangers in entertainment: Your brain can’t stop thinking about that TV series because it wants to know what happens – it wants to finish the task.


Backed up by science despite the critique


I wouldn't advocate for to-do lists if I didn't have any empirical evidence to back me up. Not only does research indicate that to-do lists decrease anxiety, but students that formulated a plan for their unfulfilled goals experienced tremendous improvement, which also eliminated the distracting interference caused by the Zeigarnik effect.


There are some who disagree with making to-do lists. I can respect that – lists are not for everyone. But claiming that people who do to-do lists are not in control is wrong. If anything, committing to doing a list is an indication of effort and consistency. In my opinion, to-do lists help tremendously with efficiency when dealing with a lot of tasks simultaneously.


Your short-term memory just can't effectively process having to write an essay, do laundry, make lunch for work, study for the exam, write a blog and watch a lecture. It's just a matter of time until you've got too many things on your plate, at which point it will just drag your productivity down with your well-being along for the ride.


The strangest thing is that these checklist critics often have an alternative way to create order in their life. Some of them log their upcoming tasks in their calendar and others tend to habitually work on their tasks like writing their essay every morning and doing push-ups every evening. It's just a matter of a different approach.


Two paths ahead


Let's engage in some imagination. There are two different paths ahead of you after having read this article. In the first, you go about your old ways, disregarding to-do lists and just winging it, and stressing out about your deadlines and tasks.


In the second, you consider it for a moment: "What do I have to lose?" Precisely. All you need is a pen and some paper, or a smartphone. You probably have both, in any case.


You could be one habit away from achieving so much more. You could start small with the simplest things. "Wash two pots, take out the trash, pick up that shirt from the floor."


It might not make the tasks easier. But it might make you consistent, and sometimes, a bit of consistency is exactly what your life needs.