to do

The Science Of To-Do Lists

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It’s safe to say that almost everyone has used at least some form of to-do list to accomplish tasks throughout their life. Even those who are adamantly against the concept of to-do lists probably create mental to-do lists regularly, or find themselves scheduling events on a calendar and ensuring that they’ve completed them before ending their day. All in all, almost everyone implements some structure regularly into their lives to ensure that they are accomplishing what they need to function at a basic level.

At their core, all of these techniques can be traced back to the idea of this list. And there’s a reason why these to-do lists function as a foundation of numerous other organizational topics. The human brain needs this structure in order to perpetuate success and, even more instinctively, survival. The brain is wired to thrive on structured, organized lists of tasks and goals—it is exactly how individuals and humanity as a species have progressed so far forward.

The power of to-do lists is immense, but the way that people approach them is continuing to evolve. Anything from a traditional pen-and-paper list to mobile phone apps can scratch that itch, and it’s this evolution of to-do lists that allows humanity to evolve right along with it.

The Power of To-Do Lists

Every to-do list lover will have a different set of reasons why these lists have been powerful in their lives, and there’s some science to back all of this, too.

For the psychology fanatics out there, a fun scientific concept called the Zeigarnik Effect is a great example of how to-do lists can literally change the way that the brain functions as it works to organize and complete tasks listed in a concrete place.

This effect’s initial findings were recorded in 1927 by a Lithuanian scientist named Bluma Zeigarnik, and it implies that the intention or desire to complete a task (by including it on a to-do list, for example), leads to a person’s memory better remembering this task until the moment it is completed.

Why Everyone Needs Lists

The argument surrounding whether or not people need these lists to function is a complicated one, but asking psychologists and experts in the fields of time management and productivity will consistently yield the same answer—everyone can benefit from a to-do list.


The Guardian spoke with Dr. David Cohen, a psychologist and author who has used to-do lists himself to navigate his hectic schedule. Conveniently and concisely, he lists three reasons why people are so fond of to-do lists and can majorly benefit from them:

  1. They are capable of providing anxiety relief by wrangling large numbers of disorganized and chaotic tasks into one place.
  2. They offer a foundation for structure and planning.
  3. They provide proof of success and accomplishment, allowing their creators to see what they have completed in the past.

Why Wouldn’t People Use To-Do Lists

Despite the inarguable power of to-do lists and the vast amount of science proving their effectiveness in daily life, there are still those who will fight tooth and nail to avoid creating any type of to-do list. Why do these people hate to-do lists so much, even when they’ve been proven to work for large percentages of individuals aiming to get their lives under control?

There are a few problems that can make to-do lists unappealing.

The Problem

One issue for people who hate these types of lists is that they are not priming themselves mentally to make the most of their to-do lists. These people may look at a list of tasks and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, leading them to avoid making a to-do list altogether so that they don’t have to see an intimidating list of tasks in front of them. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Solution

Instead of giving up, folks who find themselves mortified by the long list of work they have to do can try a couple of things to make the load more bearable.

Research has analyzed the mental relief that comes with the completion of a task, and psychologists have come to a fascinating conclusion—this mental sigh of relief can be achieved another way, too. It turns out that the mere act of planning to complete a task provides the same kind of euphoria as completing the task.

Therefore, those who despise to-do lists because of their overwhelming nature may choose to use to-do lists as planning tools rather than measures of completion or success.

Those living in constant fear of the length of their to-do lists might also choose to separate their lists into categories. Perhaps they can shorten their task schedule by having one to-do list for work (that doesn’t leave the office) and one list for home (that stays at home).

The Problem

In their most common (and most basic) form, to-do lists are created as a list of tasks. When the task is completed, it is crossed off the list, or a box is checked. When the task is not completed, the task remains on the list, untouched.

Unfortunately, this assumes that tasks exist in a binary state of “completed” or “not completed,” while the reality is that many tasks are much, much more complex. People juggling a large amount of highly involved projects often despise lists like these, because they become an overwhelming and inaccurate representation of completed work and effort made.

The Solution

This is where customization comes in, which is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to optimize their to-do lists to be as useful and relevant as possible. Instead of creating a list of broad tasks to be crossed off, it is vastly more beneficial to create subsets of tasks. Creators may choose to format this breakdown in any way that they’d like — it’s easy to create an action and set of subsections with Hive, as well. Most simply, an overarching task might be listed first, while the steps needed to complete the task are listed below as bulleted points (which can also be crossed off—nice!).

Not only does this process enable planning (and the aforementioned mental relief that accompanies it) but breaking down larger goals into smaller tasks means more opportunities to check completion boxes and cling to the resulting mental reward.

How’s that for a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment?

The Problem

People who hate to-do lists haven’t found a method that resonates with them. Perhaps to-do lists just don’t cut it when it comes to scheduling, prioritizing, keeping deadlines straight, or managing tasks that take place over an extended period of time.

The Solution

Learning to make the most of to-do lists and also identifying the style of to-do list that fits most naturally can do wonders to transfer lists from despised, unorganized scraps of paper to a powerful, streamlined, and effective system.

This is exactly why the evolution of to-do lists and the infinite ways to personalize them have become so important—the latest technology provides more customizable and complete options for the creation of to-do lists, like Hive, which is another great example of a flexible to-do list solution that can be customized and integrated with other tools per each individual users needs.

The Evolution of To-Dos

Along with rapid developments in technology, to-do lists have also seen an intense evolution of their own. Whereas many people imagine them as little more than lists scribbled on scrap paper, these lists are changing and developing into more complex and useful models as productivity experts and project management gurus continue to make a good thing even better.

Pen and Paper

When someone thinks of a to-do list, the traditional method of pen and paper is usually the first thing to come to mind. This method, utilizing any writing utensil and any piece of paper (yes, including Post-It notes, the backs of receipts, and napkins), takes to-do lists back to the bare basics.

Write down a task, then cross it out when it’s completed.

Others prefer to use this most basic method to embrace to-do lists in other ways. Perhaps they have a magnetized whiteboard of chores attached to their refrigerator, or maybe a simple list of tasks at the side of each page of their planner. The pen and paper method, despite being the most basic, continues to maintain popularity due to its ease of use and flexibility.

Bullet Journaling

Plenty of folks have heard the term “bullet journaling,” often called “BuJo” for short in casual conversation and social media tags. A quick online search will yield pages and pages of YouTube videos, top Instagram accounts, and Pinterest boards dedicated to the world of bullet journaling that is equal parts productive organization and creative artistry.

Using these social media outlets as a sole guide into bullet journaling can be inspiring but intimidating for non-artists or for those who just want a simple way to expand their to-do lists to something more.

The good news is that bullet journaling doesn’t have to be colorful, fancy, or Instagram-worthy. When the idea of bullet journaling was first introduced by Ryder Carroll, it was intended as a “mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” It’s not about complicated art or stickers or stamps (though it can be if that brings relaxation and mindfulness). Instead, it’s about the methodology.

This means that anyone can bullet journal—all they’ll need is a writing utensil and any kind of notebook.

Bullet journals expand upon the concept of to-do lists by creating overviews, opportunities for breaking tasks down into chunks, and constantly reevaluating workload by transferring tasks or eliminating them altogether when they are not worth the time.

List Applications

The next step of list evolution is, predictably, the newfound prominence of to-do list apps. Is there an app for that? Well, yes. In fact, there are dozens.

As beneficial as these apps can be, so many exist that it can often be difficult for any one person to determine what works best for them, their lifestyle, their career, and the level to which they must collaborate with other people. The aspects of trial and error so frequently associated with this abundance of apps can make to-do lists an intimidating habit to adopt despite the accessibility of these applications.

Arguably, the most effective way to encourage individuals to use and master to-do lists in a way that is beneficial for them is to introduce them to an application that can be used in more than one way. Many productivity and project management apps have done just this, allowing users to tackle a wide array of productivity tools (including to-do lists) in a single place.


One such “all-in-one” application is Hive, a project management software that’s powerful enough to fuel everything from personal projects to massive enterprises. It allows its users and their teams to work entirely how they want thanks to the flexible integration of more than 1,000 applications such as Dropbox, Outlook, Google Drive, OneDrive, and more.

Analytics tools, messaging apps, information-collecting forms, scheduling, resourcing, and file sharing make Hive a glorified to-do list with everything a team needs to be successful.

Software like this, which is available for both personal computers and mobile devices (with simple syncing between all user devices), is proof that to-do lists have truly reached a new stage of evolution. The possibilities for how one can manage their task list with Hive’s productivity platform are endless.

Wrapping Up

So, is it true that to-do lists really aren’t for everyone? Probably not. Instead, the more likely truth is that those who hate to-do lists just aren’t using them the right way, or they haven’t found the right to-do list app for them.

Thankfully, new solutions like Hive are highlighting the fact that to-do lists can be useful after all, even to those who wouldn’t dream of creating a list on pen and paper.

What’s the next thing in store for to-do list evolution?

Only time will tell. Until then, humanity is about to get a lot more productive.

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