The Fatal Flaw of the Task List

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The to-do list is a fascinating lesson both in human culture and the human brain. Umberto Eco famously proclaimed the list to be the origin of culture itself, and the Ziegarnik effect, which I’ve written about before, details the effect of writing things down on our unconscious minds.


I maintain a to-do list daily, documenting my tasks and goals, carefully trimming and pruning the list to reflect my values, my ambitions, and my priorities. Having the list in front of me is a constant reminder to stay on track- these are the things that I decided were important enough to warrant devoting a block of time to. There’s a certain liberation in putting these tasks on paper- they’re no longer floating in my head, constantly nagging. My mind becomes a bit clearer with every stroke of the pen. The process never fails to bring to mind Benjamin Franklin’s approach to the task list. There seems to be a fundamental problem with my list, however, and until recently, I had no idea what that problem was. As an example, today’s list, is this:


  1. Yoga
  2. Write a Wonderisms piece
  3. Laundry
  4. Treehouse lessons
  5. Queue Sssimpli article
  6. Call T-Mobile (increase roaming data)
  7. Weedeat the lawn
  8. Read at least 3 Readability articles
  9. Read at least 30 pages of Lolita
  10. Journal entry

These are specific items I want to accomplish today, but something’s missing- namely, the most important things in my life- the people I love- are not there.


I need to change that. There is nothing more important, more fulfilling, more worthwhile than simply engaging with the people you love. I recently remarked to someone that “if it’s not on my task list, it won’t get done.” That’s becoming increasingly true, unfortunately.


I’m notoriously awful at returning personal phone calls. Horrendous, in fact. I probably don’t tell the people that I love how much they mean to me as often I should. I write letters to my daughter- words of wisdom (I hope) that I’ll let her read when she’s old enough to grasp them. I’ve written three such letters in the past four months. There are many others who would find it a pleasant surprise to receive a letter from me, or even an email. I should certainly call old friends to catch up more often. Yet I don’t do these things often enough, because I don’t include them on my task list. If my brain recognizes the importance of the list, if by way of the Zeigarnik effect my subconscious recognizes the importance of a task by the fact that it’s written down, why do I not include the most vital elements of my well-being- people- in my list of priorities?


Starting today, I will. My list will more fully encompass the things I want to do, and I will, no doubt, be a more thankful person for it. I must be careful, of course, not to let the list dominate my life- there are times when the list must be discarded in favor of the unplanned, the spontaneous. When my daughter wants me to read her a book, I will drop the list. When a friend calls me up for some good conversation over a cup of coffee, the list can wait. When the morning is too gorgeous not to wander aimlessly in it for awhile, I will succumb to its allure. The list is very adaptable, since it’s you who holds the pencil (and the eraser on the other end). Mold it, bend it, shape it to your will, and by no means should you become a slave to it. But the list has many, many advantages, and can be a crucial tool to accomplishing your personal and professional goals. Just make sure it truly represents all of the things you want to accomplish.