Making Your To-Do List in the Morning Is Killing Your Productivity According to Research

Experts say the morning is the best time to prioritize. They’re wrong.

Al Pittampalli
Mar 21 · 4 min read
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

In a world where there are always more things to do than there is time to do them, the most important decision any professional makes is this: what shall I work on today?

Given the import of this decision, many experts argue that we should make our day’s to-do list in the morning. Before our mental capacities get depleted. When we are our sharpest.

But I want to argue that advice, while well-intentioned, for most people, proves misguided. And that’s because it ignores one very big problem.

Sure we might be a little sharper in the morning, but we’re also dangerously more biased.

Making Your To-Do List in the Morning Provokes “Present-Bias”

Whenever we’re in a lazy state of mind, one where we feel a strong pull to take the path of least resistance — the carrots over the cake, HGTV over National Geographic — we’re under the spell of what psychologists call present bias.

Present bias is our toddler-like tendency to feel good right now. In other words to favor immediate gratification over anything that requires delayed gratification.

And as it turns out, making our to-do lists in the morning provokes this very bias.

That’s because when we make our to-do list in the morning, we’re just minutes away from having to act on that to-do list. And as a general rule, call it the “last minute rule,” whenever we’re facing a tough choice, the closer we are in time to when we will have to experience the consequences of that choice, the more present-biased we become.

There’s a great study on the topic of movie watching that demonstrates this last minute rule in action.

How Making Your To-Do List in the Morning is Like Picking a Movie At the Last Minute

In 1999, a behavioral economist named Daniel Read conducted a study where he presented participants with a list including two kinds of movies: high-brow and low-brow.

High-brow movies are the kind that take more work to get into, but ultimately leave you feeling glad you watched them. Think Schindler’s List.

Low-brow movies, on the other hand, are the movie equivalent of junk food. They deliver immediate gratification, but we’re likely to feel at least a tinge of regret afterwards for having not watched something more enriching. Think Mrs. Doubtfire.

When Lowenstein asked participants to decide what movie they wanted to watch in advance — three days before they would actually have to watch the movie — they tended to pick high-brow movies like Schindler’s List.

But when participants were asked to choose a movie on the very same day they were going to have to actually watch the movie, in other words, last-minute, they were more likely to pick low brow movies. The Mrs. Doubtfires.

Why? The answer is present bias. Choosing movies last minute triggered the bias which nudged participants down the path of least resistance.

Making Our To-Do List in the Morning Makes Us Prioritize Minor and Often Trivial Tasks

Just as picking movies last-minute makes us choose regrettable movies, picking tasks last-minute makes us choose regrettable tasks.

That’s because when we make our to-do lists in the morning, we are essentially deciding what tasks to work on minutes before we’ll have to perform those tasks. This is bound to provoke present bias.

As a result, we’re tempted to choose the path of least resistance. That means more immediately gratifying tasks over ones that require delayed gratification.

That means minor tasks, trivial emails, pointless meetings. Projects that make us feel busy but don’t actually move forward our long-term goals in a meaningful way.

That’s why, instead of setting our to-do list in the morning, if we want to be less biased, we ought to do it the night before.

The Power of Making Your To Do List the Night Before

When we make our to-do lists the night before, we’re effectively deciding what to do in advance. No longer so close in time to when we’ll have to execute those tasks, we’re less influenced by present bias.

Therefore, we’re not as easily seduced by urgent minor tasks.

Consequently, we’re more likely to put the more difficult, more important tasks on our list. The tasks that, at the end of day looking back, make you proud that you performed them.

In other words, fewer Mrs. Doubtfires. More Schindler’s Lists.

Conclusion

Prioritization is the linchpin activity of the modern professional. That’s why instead of making your to-do list in the morning, at the last minute, when you are bound to be overcome with present bias, try doing it in advance, the night before. It’s a small shift that might just make a big difference.

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Al Pittampalli

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Author of PERSUADABLE (Harper Business) — a Wall Street Journal book of the month. Writer for Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today. Resident of NYC.