I remember trying out my first hour-by-hour schedule to help me get things done when I was 10. Wasn’t really my thing. I’ve since retired the hourly schedule, but I still rely on a daily to-do list.

I went through the same motions every night in university. I wrote out, by hand, my to-do list for the next day, ranked by priority. Beside each task I wrote down the number of hours each task should take.

This was and still is a habit and finding a system that works has been a struggle for me. I’ve tested out a variety of methods, bought a number of books on the subject, and experimented: color-coded writing, Post-it note reminders in the bathroom, apps, Day-Timers — you name it, I’ve tried it. So I went on an adventure to figure out the most effective way not only to write my daily to-do list but to get more things done.

The Brief History of the To-Do List

Charles Schwab was a steel tycoon and a man obsessed with output and economic efficiency. He was one of the first Americans to introduce a time-saving workflow process, called Taylorism, in his factories. In the early 1900s, Schwab sent out a memo stating that he would handsomely reward the individual who could improve productivity among his employees. Ivy Lee, the father of public relations, met up with Schwab and suggested the following:

Each employee should write down six tasks every day, rank them from highest to lowest priority, and immediately get to work on the first task. They should continue making their way down their lists, with any unfinished tasks simply moving onto the next day’s list. After 90 days of list-making and monitoring, Schwab noticed productivity dramatically improve.

The to-do list has become a daily necessity in modern life, but it’s not exactly a tool that makes you more productive.

At some point you’ve probably made a to-do list with 10 or more tasks to complete in a short period of time. As you get to work, the sheer immensity of tasks leaves you in a state of paralysis, with a heavy sense of obligation and a nagging feeling in the back of your mind. Psychologists call that nagging feeling the Zeigarnik effect, an old phenomenon in the field of psychology. Our minds will remain fixated on an unfinished task, causing our mental and physical health to suffer. Upon completion, we are freed from the burden of this task.

The psychological rush of completing all of our tasks is a state our mind loves. So why do we make those gigantic lists in the first place?

Dr. Tim Pychyl is an expert in the area of procrastination research. He argues that you feel an immediate sense of accomplishment simply by writing down all the tasks you would like to complete, without completing any one of them. Your brain will simulate the success you would like to feel.

Writing down many nonspecific tasks on a to-do list acts as the perfect proxy to such fantasies. It allows you to fantasize about successfully completing hard tasks and gives you permission to mentally indulge in this thought. It is instant gratification, but you haven’t really accomplished anything.

Starting your day with an unprioritized to-do list also can undermine your ability to make productive decisions as the day goes on. Ego depletion refers to the amount of decision-making “points” we have. As we use up our points, our ability to make smart decisions becomes impaired.

Over 100 experiments confirm that by exercising more self-control at the start of the day, your motivation and attention will decrease as the day goes on. This is why people tend to cheat on their diets after stressful and exhausting days. If you spend every morning deciding what to eat for breakfast or picking out what you should wear, you are wasting limited self-control resources on unimportant tasks. This is one of the reasons why legendary Apple CEO Steve Jobs was known for wearing the same outfit every day.

Writing an Effective ‘To-Do’ List

Writing vague one-word tasks on your to-do list prevents you from getting the task done faster. You’ve got to think about your to-do’s in concrete terms. While writing down a task using nonspecific terms may help save you time for now, it hurts your progress and does not save you time in the long run.

This is how you write a to-do list:

  1. To get the task-completion rush all you really need is a shorter list. Write down no more than three tasks on your daily to-do list. You may have a second, ongoing list that keeps track of the tasks coming down the pipeline. Prioritize them by importance. Ask yourself: “which task will make me feel most accomplished?” That is task No. 1. After you have three tasks listed, put any overflow tasks on a separate piece of paper that you can easily tuck away. Keep it out of sight.
  2. Use small Post-it notes or lined index cards. A small piece of paper will physically prevent you from writing a long to-do list.
  3. David Allen, the to-do list guru, suggests writing your task down as an action. This will prevent you from using nonspecific terms when making your list. For example, instead of “find movers” try “call mom and ask her to suggest a mover.’” Or “start and finish research for Tim” try “Do a journal article search using the terms: XYZ.” One way to keep a check on this is every time you write down a new to-do, ask yourself: “What is step No. 1 to get this task done?” Step No. 1 becomes your new to-do.
  4. View one task at a time. If three tasks per day is too much, you can boost your productivity by viewing your list one task at a time. Try Now Do This. Or if you’re old-school, write one task per Post-it note and then stack them so the preceding tasks are hidden.

Ivy Lee didn’t have it quite right; six tasks were way too many for one day. But clearly he had his head in the right place — he went on to regularly rub shoulders with and consult for the Rockefellers. Charles Schwab later went on to build Bethlehem Steel into the second-largest independent steel production company.