What neuroscience says about your to-do list

I’ve got to confess: Even though I know better now, if I stop paying attention I slip right back into my old ways.

I’m a hoarder ... a hoarder of to-do lists.

They turn up everywhere – upstairs, downstairs, in drawers, tucked in journals, falling out of pockets, divided among countless sticky notes….

But how can I stop?! I get such a rush when things get out of my head and onto paper. It’s like feng shui for the mind.

And don’t even get me started on the joy of actually crossing something off….


But even though it’s a short-term high, the latest research tells us that to-do lists tend to make us less productive by negatively affecting performance in the medium and long run.


It turns out that we love to-do lists because we get a rush of dopamine every time we cross something off. Those dopamine hits are très addictive - like warm chocolate croissants from Starbucks.


Unfortunately, we tend to put way more onto those to-do lists than we can reasonably accomplish.

And the effect of NOT crossing things off our lists – or worse! watching our lists continually grow longer, rather than shorter – makes us feel even worse than we did before we made the list.


What ends up happening is that a negative feedback loop forms:

  • We feel loss over the lack of dopamine

  • We focus on what we DIDN’T do, rather than what we DID accomplish, and feel overwhelmed by everything there is to do

  • We decide there’s something wrong with us (we’re lazy, we lack discipline, we’re too scattered)

  • Subconsciously, we’re less inclined to tackle future projects because we know we end up feeling bad about ourselves. It’s so much easier to get a quick hit of dopamine from social media or some other source!


(All of this is completely human and completely logical. We’re wired to pay more attention to the negative situations in our lifex (after all, they’re more life-threatening than positive situations) and then avoid them at all costs!)

If this even remotely rings a bell, then hang tight. I’ve got a solution for you coming next week that will show you how to have your lists but keep crossing things off like a badass, too.


Here’s to getting your projects off of paper and out into the world,


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