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Whether you live by them or loathe them, the odds are high that you’ve written a to-do list at some point in your life.
You may even be a fan of its close neighbor, the got-done list. But new research has shown that both lists aren’t for everyone — and may even be counterproductive for some.
So, how do you know which is right for you? Experts say you need to be honest about your productivity habits.
“Look to see if you’re having trouble at the beginning of the day getting started or if your trouble is feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of an otherwise busy day,” said procrastination researcher Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate psychology professor at Carleton University and author of "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle."
If getting motivated is the issue, the to-do list is for you. Why? It helps you identify and hone in on high-priority items. “This will focus your energy and get you going,” said Pychyl.
But if you often feel self-doubt at the end of the day, and worry about what you didn’t accomplish, the got-done list is a good option.
“This is a great tool for reminding yourself that everything is OK, you’re getting the stuff that needs to be done, done,” said Pychyl.
It can also help you plan ahead, he said, since a got-done list lays the groundwork for planning tomorrow's priorities.
Are you someone who tends to procrastinate? Skip the to-do list, says efficiency expert Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield.
“Simply writing out that list might make procrastinators not want to do the list even more because it’s proof that they have a lot to do,” she said.
Procrastinators often have low confidence in their ability to accomplish things, she said, making the got-done list a good way to reaffirm that they’re on the right track, and set the stage for future tasks.
“We know from research that when people look at their past successes, it can motivate them to move forward,” Sirois said.
Of course, there’s a right and wrong way to make both kinds of lists. For the to-do list, Pychyl recommends keeping a short-term, narrow focus, zeroing in on what you need to tackle next and what action you need to take in order to do that.
“Most of us get overwhelmed when we think about too much at once,” he explained.
The same is true for the got-done list, which can create what Sirois calls a “resting on your laurels mentality.”
She recommends limiting the list to tasks that are relevant to what you need to accomplish next.
For example, if you know you need to write a report for work, jot down the steps you’ve already achieved, like brainstorming or creating an outline.
If you’re starting at the beginning and you’ve had to do this before, write out how you accomplished the task the last time around to remind yourself that it’s doable.
Still not sure which list is right for you? It’s possible that they both are. Pychyl said, “I see these lists as dancing together.”