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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Create An Etiquette Guide to Help Staff Work From Home

With the new normal of videoconferencing and remote work, even some of us who consider ourselves to be tech-savvy can get a little bewildered. Beyond the technological considerations, there is a whole new world of behavior and etiquette to maneuver through. To help employees navigate this landscape, it can be helpful to create a guide that spells out expectations and eliminates confusion.

Moleskine, maker of the popular notebook that bears its name, is headquartered in the Italian city of Milan, and although they had begun putting together a remote working strategy before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they had not yet fully implemented it. As it became apparent that their mostly office-based workforce would not be able to continue to work on-site safely, they had to accelerate their plan and begin their work-from-home program practically overnight.

To help their employees transition to a kind of work that most of them were completely unfamiliar with, Moleskine created a 12-page “Smart Working Etiquette” guide. This guide covers basics, like what you should wear (no pajamas) to where your workstation should be set up (the brightest, most comfortable part of your home), as well as how to run efficient virtual meetings and carry on effective communication with teammates.

More details and some excellent ideas in this ZDNet piece.