Do you ever feel like you’re constantly being pulled in different directions and can’t seem to get anything done? Finding yourself constantly adding tasks to your to-do list, but never crossing anything off?
You’re not alone. Many people struggle with distractions and disorganization, which can make it feel like an uphill battle to get things done and feel accomplished. Don’t worry or feel pressured.
In this post, I am sharing 5 tips for making better to-do lists based on scientific principles and techniques so you can create to-do lists you will actually complete.
I have also included real-life examples of how you can actually apply these methods. Toward the end, I apply these principles ⬇️ in creating a to-do list for myself. Make sure to check it out if you are in a hurry!
These tips can help you to stay focused and organized, even in the face of distractions, so you can accomplish more in less time.
For what it’s worth, I was among the top students in computer science (a tough major) at my uni and it was largely due to these methods. 🙂
1️⃣ Pareto Principle: 80-20 Rule of Time Management
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is a principle that states that roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. It is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that roughly 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
In personal time management, the Pareto Principle can be used to help identify the most important tasks and activities to focus on, and to prioritize them over less important tasks.
This can help to increase efficiency and productivity by allowing you to focus on the tasks that will have the greatest impact.
Here are a few examples of how the Pareto Principle might be applied in time management:
- Prioritizing tasks: An individual might use the Pareto Principle to identify the 20% of their tasks that are most important and prioritize them over less important tasks. This can help to ensure that the most important tasks are completed first and that the individual is using their time effectively.
- Reducing distractions: An individual might use the Pareto Principle to identify the 20% of distractions that are most disruptive and work to eliminate or minimize them. This can help to increase productivity and focus by reducing the number of distractions that the individual encounters.
- Managing email: An individual might use the Pareto Principle to identify the 20% of emails that are most important and prioritize them over less important emails. This can help to ensure that the most important emails are responded to promptly and that the individual is using their time effectively.
- Managing meetings: A team might use the Pareto Principle to identify the 20% of meetings that are most important and prioritize them over less important meetings. This can help to ensure that the team is using their time effectively and that important decisions are being made in a timely manner.
2️⃣ Eisenhower Matrix: Urgency Trap
The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, is a tool used to prioritize tasks based on their urgency and importance. It was developed by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was known for his effective time management skills.
The matrix consists of a grid with four quadrants, each representing a different priority level for tasks:
- Quadrant 1: Urgent and important tasks. These are tasks that need to be done immediately and are critical to the success of your goals.
- Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent tasks. These are tasks that are important to your long-term goals, but they don’t need to be done right away.
- Quadrant 3: Urgent but not important tasks. These are tasks that need to be done quickly, but they don’t have a significant impact on your goals.
- Quadrant 4: Neither urgent nor important tasks. These are tasks that are neither pressing nor important, and they can generally be safely ignored or delegated.
How is Eisenhower Matrix different from the Pareto Principle?
Pareto Principle focuses only on task importance. Eisenhower Matrix focuses on both importance and urgency. The Pareto principle gives the big picture view of 20% most important tasks and 20% most disruptive distractions. Eisenhower matrix covers and classifies all tasks.
Here are a few real-life examples of how the Eisenhower Matrix can be used to prioritize tasks:
- A student has a paper due in two days, a math test in three days, and a history project due in a week. The paper and math test are both in Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) because they need to be done immediately and are critical to the student’s academic success. The history project is in Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) because it is important but does not need to be done right away. The student should prioritize the paper and math test first and then work on the history project as time allows.
- A business owner has a meeting with a new client in two hours, a staff meeting in four hours, and a budget report due in a week. The meeting with the new client is in Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) because it needs to be done immediately and is important to the success of the business. The staff meeting is in Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important) because it needs to be done quickly, but it is not as important as the meeting with the new client. The budget report is in Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) because it is important, but it does not need to be done right away. The business owner should prioritize the meeting with the new client first, then the staff meeting, and then work on the budget report as time allows.
- An employee has a deadline for a project in two days, a presentation to prepare for in four days, and a company newsletter to write in a week. The project deadline is in Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) because it needs to be done immediately and is critical to the employee’s job performance. The presentation is in Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) because it is important, but it does not need to be done right away. The newsletter is in Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important) because it needs to be done quickly, but it is not as important as the project or the presentation. The employee should prioritize the project deadline first, then the presentation, and then work on the newsletter as time allows.
- A bakery owner has a delivery to make in two hours, a catering order to prepare in four hours, and a new menu to design in a week. They also have a meeting with a local food blogger scheduled for next week to discuss a potential collaboration. The meeting with the food blogger is in Quadrant 4 (neither urgent nor important) because it is neither pressing nor important to the bakery’s operations. It could potentially be safely ignored or delegated to someone else, freeing up time for the more pressing and important tasks in Quadrants 1 and 2.
To-do-list apps like TickTick provide an Eisenhower matrix feature in-built. You can use TickTick for prioritizing tasks and maintaining effective to-do lists synced across all your devices.
3️⃣ Pomodoro Technique: Focused Bursts of Action
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It involves breaking down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are called “Pomodoros.”
What is the scientific basis for the Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro technique is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.
- Researchers have found that sustained attention to a task without breaks makes the brain tune out.
- Consequently, evidence suggests that breaks help you stay focused.
- By reducing the time between rewards (breaks), Pomodoros reinforce our drive to complete our tasks.
- Breaks should not be too long and should relax our cognitive abilities (take short walks, avoid phones – for example).
- Pomodoro works as an antidote to Parkinson’s law. By timeboxing our tasks, we get more done in less time.
“From decades of research on learning and behavior, we know that the shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.”
– Dr. Gazzaley & Dr. Rosen, neuroscientists in their book “The Distracted Mind”.
Here are a few ways you can use the Pomodoro Technique to make a more effective to-do list:
- Break your tasks into 25-minute intervals: By breaking your tasks into 25-minute intervals, you can stay focused and avoid burnout. At the end of each interval, take a short break to rest and recharge before starting the next interval.
- Use a timer to track your work intervals: Using a timer to track your work intervals can help you to stay on track and avoid getting distracted. You can use a physical timer, such as a kitchen timer, or a digital timer on your phone or computer.
A real-life example of using the Pomodoro Technique to learn guitar:
- Set clear learning goals: This might include specific skills you want to learn, such as chords or scales, or songs you want to be able to play.
- Break your practice into fixed intervals: Break your practice into 25-minute intervals, with short breaks in between. You can use a timer to track your work intervals and help you stay on track.
- Focus on one skill or task at a time: This might include working on a new chord progression or learning a new song. By focusing on one skill or task at a time, you can make progress without feeling overwhelmed.
- Take short breaks between intervals: After each practice interval, take a short break to rest and recharge. You can stretch, take a walk, or grab a light snack.
You can use apps like Flora or Forest to set Pomodoro Focus timers on your phone. They block you from using distracting apps like Insta, FB, YouTube, etc. while you work. If you successfully complete a Pomo session, you get rewarded with virtual trees. You can also donate real trees. It’s a great way to be productive and do good for the earth.
4️⃣ The Zeigarnik Effect: Task Tension, Planning & Recall
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon stating that people tend to remember incomplete tasks more easily than completed tasks. It was first described by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s.
The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that unfinished tasks tend to stick in our minds, causing us to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance or discomfort called task-specific tension. This discomfort can motivate us to complete the tasks in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance and achieve a sense of closure.
The Zeigarnik Effect can be useful for helping us to remember important tasks and stay motivated to complete them. However, it can also be a source of stress if we have too many unfinished tasks on our plate.
How to stop intrusive thoughts about undone tasks?
Research indicates that the mere act of planning our next steps for a task relieves task-specific tension. In such cases, it may be helpful to break large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps, or to use tools such as the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency.
Studies done by Masicampo and Baumeister (2011) show that Zeigarnik effect is actually our brain pushing us to “make a plan” rather than pestering us to do the tasks right now.
The researchers advise us, “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”
How to use the Zeignarik effect to make effective to-do lists?
Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps: By breaking larger tasks into smaller steps, you can make progress on the task without feeling overwhelmed.
This will help you to feel a sense of accomplishment as you complete each step, and the Zeigarnik Effect will help you to remember the incomplete tasks and stay motivated to complete them.
The task-specific tension from the Zeignarik effect can be used for better recall or as a push to get back to work. The Pomodoro technique can be used to divide our tasks such that they can be done in chunks. Eisenhower matrix can be used to decide the priority of our tasks.
How to use the Zeignarik effect for better recall?
The Zeigarnik effect occurs because when a task is interrupted, it remains active in our memory, creating a sense of incompleteness that drives us to complete the task. On the other hand, when a task is completed, it is no longer active in our memory, which makes it more difficult to recall later.
There are several ways that the Zeigarnik effect can be used to improve recall:
- Interrupt your study sessions with breaks: Instead of studying for long periods of time, try breaking your study sessions into shorter intervals with breaks in between. This will help to keep the material active in your memory, increasing the likelihood of recall.
- Take notes while learning: Taking notes while learning can help to keep the material active in your memory and can serve as a helpful review tool later on. Reading your notes will re-generate task-specific tension.
- Review material regularly: Regular review of material can help to keep it active in your memory, increasing the likelihood of recall.
Overall, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that by keeping tasks active in our memory, we can improve our ability to recall them later.
A real-life example of using the Zeignarik effect to your advantage:
You are preparing for a big presentation at work, but you are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material you need to cover. To use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage, you might break the presentation down into smaller sections and focus on one section at a time until it is complete. This will help you to feel a sense of progress and accomplishment, and the Zeigarnik Effect will help you to remember the incomplete sections and stay motivated to complete them.
5️⃣ Gamification: Rewards & Penalties
Gamification is the use of game design elements and mechanics in non-game contexts, such as business or education, to encourage engagement and motivate behavior change.
In the context of creating better to-do lists, gamification can help to make the process of organizing and completing tasks more enjoyable and rewarding.
Here are a few ways you might use gamification to make a better to-do list:
- Set clear goals and rewards: For example, you might set a goal to complete 10 tasks in a week and reward yourself with a treat or activity that you enjoy, such as a movie night or a day at the beach.
- Use a points system: Create a points system to track your progress as you complete tasks on your to-do list. You might earn points for each task completed, or for completing certain categories of tasks. You could then use your points to unlock rewards or achievements or to compete with yourself or others to see who can earn the most points.
- Use a task tracker or app: Use a task tracker or app that includes gamification elements to help you stay motivated and on track. Many task trackers and apps include features such as points systems, rewards, and competitions to help you stay engaged and motivated as you work through your to-do list.
- Create a game or challenge: Turn the process of creating and completing a to-do list into a game or challenge. For example, you might create a scavenger hunt-style challenge where you have to complete tasks in order to unlock new levels or challenges.
By using gamification techniques, you can make the process of creating and completing a to-do list more enjoyable and rewarding, which can help to increase your productivity and focus.
Forest and Flora are two plant-themed gamified Pomodoro timer apps you can install to instantly incorporate Pomodoro and gamification into your productivity arsenal. They plant trees (virtual and real) when you complete Pomodoros.
Applying These Principles to Create my To-Dos
Let’s take an actual to-do list from my college days. Let’s say it was Wednesday then. I am reproducing the scenario below.
I had an upcoming exam on the Theory of Computation on Friday, a debate competition I wanted to participate in scheduled on Saturday, and a software project I was working on for my resume (for applying to companies next semester).
Using Eisenhower Importance-Urgency Matrix
The TOC exam comes under important and urgent because prep for that needed to be started immediately. Otherwise, my grade would suffer. Software Project is important (to get a job!) but not urgent as I was going to apply to companies from next semester only. Debate is urgent (cannot be postponed) but not that important (no effect on grade or job prospects, just my happiness :P)
Applying the Pareto Principle
For my TOC exam, I analyzed previous year question papers and found that a question always came from these 3 topics: regular expressions, Chomsky hierarchy, and pumping lemma (these are short topics).
There are 8 questions out of which we have to attempt 5. If 3 questions are likely to come from these, that means these are ‘top 20%’ will give most results.
Next for debate, the topic was Rohingya Refugee Crisis. Here, reading about policy implications of allowing or refusing refugees is the 20% that will give 80% results. Going deep into the history or why they are forced to migrate (beyond an overview) will not be good use of time (can cover after Exam and before Debate).
Listing Tasks by Priority
- Get missing notes for the TOC exam from a friend.
- Study regular expressions, Chomsky hierarchy, and pumping lemma (exam topics)
- Light reading on the debate topic (Refugee Crisis government policy response)
Note that I eliminated any tasks related to software project for that day as it was not urgent and my energy is limited.
Pomodoro, Gamification, and Zeigarnik
I used Forest app at the time. It is a Pomodoro timer app which gives you virtual coins and plants virtual trees in your app garden (or you can spend your coins to donate real trees) when you successfuly complete a pomodoro period. It has leaderboards as well. (Pomodoro + Gamification)
Pomodoro technique by involving short breaks automatically uses Zeigarnik effect to improve recall. So that’s taken care of.
By using tools like the Eisenhower Matrix, the Zeigarnik Effect, and the Pomodoro Technique, you can create more effective to-do lists and accomplish more in less time. So take control of your distractions and get organized with these scientific strategies for better to-do lists.
Also do let me know what works for you or if you have your own tricks to getting things done! Happy organizing 🙂
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