A Neuroscientist on the Calming Powers of the To-Do List

Portrait of a young woman writing on a notepad
Photo: © Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

There are two kinds of people in the world:

1. Those who make lists.
2. Those who don’t.

And, as one scientist recently argued, those who fall into the former group might hold the secret to being more productive individuals. On this week’s episode of WNYC’s tech podcast Note to Self, host Manoush Zomorodi interviews McGill University neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin about how to get a more organized brain. Levitin’s very old-fashioned tip? Make lists.

As Levitin, who wrote the 2014 book The Organized Mind, further explained to Zomorodi:

I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter – get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.

Here’s why: Most people can only hold about four things in their mind at a time, Levitin said. (And, let’s be real, you probably have way more than four things to do today.) List-making takes that mental juggling out of the picture: You don’t think about what you have to do, and you’re not distracted (at least not as much) since it’s written down in front of your face, which allows you to become immersed in whatever activity it is that you’re tackling, whether it’s picking up kitty litter or planning a presentation.

Something as simple as putting pen to paper and taking the extra few minutes to plan out your day puts you at ease and lets you complete goals without wasting time trying to figure out what is the next most important thing to tackle. And that, Levitin says, is the core reason why lists are so great: They let you move from one task to another without wasting time, making you the ultimate productivity ninja. Just don’t forget to do the most unpleasant (but most important) task on your list first.

Neuroscientist Really Wants You to Make Lists