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.