Making To-Do Lists Easier

Let’s face it, traditional to-do lists can be boring. We associate them with work, errands, and other things we wish we didn’t have to do. We don’t tend to think of making to-do lists as an exciting activity.

However, there is one exception: bucket lists.

The List We Love

Almost everyone has made a bucket list at some point in their lives. Most look back on that exercise fondly.

Nobody looks back on their grocery list fondly.

The difference is that bucket lists make us feel good. It’s because we associate them with aspirations and not with work. Bucket lists are filled with only the things we want to do. Hopes and dreams fill our mind when we think about them. Your traditional to-do list is a space for work. It holds all of the things you dislike thinking about so much that you need a place to hold them.

These pleasant (and unpleasant) memories play an important role in how (and if) we adopt to-do lists into our lives. It isn’t because to-do lists aren’t useful. To-do lists wouldn’t have lasted this long if they couldn’t quantifiably help us get more done. The problem is an emotional one.

Finding the Magic

So how do you convert a to-do list skeptic into a to-do list user?

You look at what works. Bucket lists work.

People love them. Ask anyone what’s on their bucket list and they’re sure to have plenty to say. Try doing that with a normal to-do list. You’ll be lucky if even a third of the people you talk to have anything to contribute. Part of this is because bucket lists are much easier to talk about. They’re usually fairly actionable. This is part of their magic. The information on a normal to-do list is usually just for you. Nobody else has to (or can) file a report with Karen in accounting by 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Everyone can (or could) visit Paris or watch the greatest films of the last 100 years.

Bucket lists are more universally useful, and there’s value in that. The added usefulness that comes from holding shareable knowledge is appealing. Your bucket list serves as a bank of suggestions (social currency) that you can trade for social clout when the opportunity arises. Creating it and adding things to it doesn’t feel like such a fruitless endeavor when you look at it this way.

That exciting content isn’t just great for building social clout, it’s important for generating positive associations with your list. You’re going to avoid to-do lists if all you use them for is managing work stress. It’s pleasant to think about our bucket lists because it reminds us of our aspirations. It’s even more powerful when you consider how morbid the concept of a bucket is. It’s a list about what we want to do before we ‘kick the bucket’. As much as we hate thinking about work, we hate thinking about our own mortality even more.

If something focused on the fleetingness of life can get us engaged, there’s hope for the humdrum to-do list.

Capturing the Magic

So what can we do to bring the draw of bucket lists to our to-do lists? The trick isn’t to combine your bucket list with your to-do list (that only makes the list less useful). Instead, we need to integrate the social and aspirational aspects of the bucket list.

Social integration is as simple as adding more generally useful information. Consider using your to-do list as a space for other important work related notes. If you hear about changes at the office or learn a helpful trick to keep the copier from jamming add them to your list. It will earn you some social currency and encourage you to keep collecting.

Remember, this doesn’t mean you should overload your list with everything. Moderation and context are key. Keep your work related notes to your work-focused to-do list and your non-work plans like books and restaurants elsewhere.

Work on categorization to strengthen the aspirational aspects of your to-do list. When a list becomes just a bunch of stuff it isn’t very inspiring. If your to-do app (or preferred system) allows separate folders use these to organize your tasks. These folders embody your aspirations. They take the form of compartmentalized goals made up of their related tasks. It’s far more fun to tackle these more achievable pieces than a daunting list of incoming microwork. While ‘financial report for Jill’ might not have the same allure as ‘climb Mt. Everest’, the encouragement offered by an explicit goal holds true for both.

Making the Magic Work for You

If you incorporate these simple changes you’ll find the barriers for to-do list adoption lowered. From there, you’ll be able to shape your list to fit your needs, and you can start enjoying the benefits that keeping a to-do list offers.

What do you think? Do you struggle to adopt to-do lists into your life? Have you succeeded? Let us know in the comments below.

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