A feeling that characterises adulthood is overwhelm – having too many urgent things clamouring for our attention – the pressing phone-call, the important meeting, the compelling deadline, the immediate text message and the gratifying bar of chocolate. And the worst part? They always come all together – like a clenched fist hurtling towards our face.
One of the best antidotes is to list out our to-dos. Lists are those simple indispensable tools we all use and take for granted. But what does a list actually do?
Our working memories hold about four pieces of information at anytime. Whenever we focus, we need those slots to hold some information. Which is why it is impossible to multiply large numbers when we’re making a sharp turn with a car. However, when we have too many things to do, the resulting anxiety knocks important information off our working memory slots. A list helps by freeing the brain up from juggling this information all the time.
Secondly, a list places our activities side-by-side. Our brains are automatic comparison machines – as soon as we look at two cups of coffee beside each other, we identify the larger one. This process is entirely involuntary. Similarly, when tasks are listed, our tendency to compare nudges us to prioritize. It also helps us see dependencies and filter out noise.
A good list serves as the linchpin for every productivity method – from Agile and Scrum to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. As Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas. Not holding them.”