To-do list psychology: Can changing what you call it make it easier to complete?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Recently, I read a science fiction novel called “Network Effect” by Martha Wells (if you are a sci-fi fan, I recommend it highly, though you will want to read the novellas first). In it, the protagonist refers to a list of tasks he needs to complete as his “action list”. Not his “to-do list”, his action list.

This a chord with struck me – what a different connotation action list has, compared to to-do list. Action implies strength, forward movement, positive progress. A to-do sounds like a chore, a something that is reluctantly done, if at all.

My To-Do List System

Believe me, I speak from experience. I am a regular writer of to-do lists, though lately not a frequent doer of those list items. My system is simple. I generally write up my list on a small legal pad at the end of the day, adding items to be done the following day in whatever order they come to me. I divide the narrow column on the left in two – the first half for a numerical priority designation for the task on that line (1, 2, 3, etc.), the other half-column for the status of the task. An “X” denotes a completed task (sadly, not frequently seen), an “O” means that task is Ongoing, and so may spill over to subsequent days. The most frequently-seen symbol is the right-facing arrow, which brands a task as not ongoing and not completed, and therefore moving to the following day.

Is It All In My Head?

Like I said, it’s a simple system, but therein lies its strength. I don’t think the system is at fault for my backlog of incomplete tasks. But what is? Could it be all in my head? Is this a psychological problem, related to the negative connotation I attach to the phrase to-do list? What would happen, I wonder, if I started writing ACTIONS at the top of the page instead of TO-DOS?

A Different Approach to To-Do Lists

Well, I propose to find out. After all, I don’t think it will make meany less productive (I don’t think I could be less productive). So, beginning on Monday, June 8, I will start an experiment where I start referring to and thinking of my to-do list as my action list. My hope is that this will give the items on it a more positive meaning and a renewed sense of urgency that the old nomenclature just didn’t impart, thereby motivating me to actually take action on them. I will update my progress here on a weekly basis, until I get a sense of how it’s shaking out. Or not. Depends on how motivated I am. Either way, you’ll know, I guess.


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The business landscape is changing in a lot of ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to survive and thrive, your sales and marketing efforts should be changing as well. This article from the JUST Creative blog tells how to grow your sales and leads during the Coronavirus pandemic, and not just survive, but thrive.

Via JUST Creative.