Why Your Mental To-Do List Prevents Progress

What lists do you have circling around in your brain right now?

Do you have something you keep trying to remember to get at the grocery store? Or a bill you need to pay before the end of the month? Does your brain keep reminding you to text that friend and then you forget? All of these are examples of mental to do lists.

Keeping mental to-do lists is exhausting.

All the big researchers that study decision making discuss this idea of "cognitive fatigue." You're wearing yourself out when you have to "keep remembering" things over and over again. Think about it. Let's say you want to remember to pay your credit card bill by the end of the month and it is only the 15th. On the 16th, a thought pops up while you're driving, "Don't forget to pay your bill!" But then you say, "Oh I'm driving. I'll have to remember that later." Two days go by. You're watching a movie and think, "Oh! I have to pay that credit card bill by the end of the month." But you don't do anything about it. You just let it keep popping up at seemingly random times.

But why "think" about these things at all?

Yes, of course, you have to pay your bill. But do you have to think about it 100 times before it is actually due? No. You're just wearing yourself out and distracting yourself when you keep mental to-do lists.

So what do I do? I write everything down - old-fashioned pen and paper style. Some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking, "Oh no - not another to-do list fanatic."

And some of you are saying, "I already have written to-do lists!" But hear me out.

Sure, you have a written or electronic to-do list. But does it have absolutely everything on it? I mean everything. If I have a thought about something I need to do - it goes in my planner. No matter how big or little the item. By putting it down on paper, I don't have to think about it again. I don't have to spend mental energy "remembering" to do something. I'm saving my brain from cognitive fatigue.

Writing everything down on an actual to-do list also gives perspective.

Last week I had a student in my office who told me she had "a million things to do" by Friday. She felt completely overwhelmed and stressed out. Totally understandable - we all get like this from time to time! I gave her a piece of paper and had her write down everything she had to get done by Friday. It took her a few minutes. She had three things on the list. Not a million. I didn't have to say anything - she said it herself.

"Okay, I see what you're doing here. The list isn't as long as I thought it was."

Success! Those are the  best moments for me - when a student or client comes to their own conclusion. Instead of feeling the weight of "a million things" that were actually three, but taking up so much space in her mental capacity, she was able to tackle each one separately and accomplish her goals.

Want to read more about decision making and cognitive fatigue? I highly recommend Dr. Cal Newport's book, "Deep Work." Or start with blog posts by James Clear. Lots of great advice and tips in their writings. And try it this week - mind dump everything on paper or electronically. Does it help?

Tell us in the comments below what works for you!