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Do To-Do Lists Work?

New research explores to-do list use in relation to procrastination.

Many people use lists to keep track of things that they want or need to do. Do these ubiquitous to-do lists work? Does it matter if these lists are regular, formal habits or causal notes or even a mental list? Does the structure or organization of these lists matter? These are some of the questions Shamarukh Chowdhury, a senior doctoral student in our research group, asked when she embarked on a recent research project.

I have to warn you at the outset that we have only collected data so far from a student sample, and, of course, to-do lists will probably vary by context and life circumstance. That said, I think you’ll find the results interesting and thought-provoking. I sure did, particularly with regards to personality and what to-do lists might mean in terms of personality. But this gets me a little bit ahead of our story.

Shamarukh collected data from 300 undergraduate students. She used online self-report questionnaires that included questionnaires on why, when, and how these participants created to-do lists related to their goals. She also explored various attributes of their to-do lists (e.g., structured, organized, detailed), how much they tended to procrastinate, and aspects of their personality.

Well over half of the participants (184) created formal, written to-do lists, while 51 participants created random to-do lists—you know, the back of the napkin or scrap of paper sort of thing at the spur of the moment—and 65 participants reported that they made mental to-do lists only.

The first interesting result was that although individuals who create to-do lists more often tend to procrastinate less, those who created formal to-do lists procrastinated less than any other group and were more conscientious than the participants who used random or mental to-do lists.

Second, individuals who reported using their to-do lists more procrastinated less. And, as a sort of corollary to this use finding, the more structured, organized and detailed to-do lists were and the more to-do lists were created habitually were related to less procrastination and more conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness is one of five major “super traits” in personality. (Learn more about these in relation to procrastination.) From a personality perspective, it’s the antithesis of procrastination, as people described as conscientious are seen as self-disciplined, dutiful, organized and not impulsive. It’s truly a resilience resource when it comes to self-regulation.

The interesting thing for me in Shamarukh’s results is just how conscientiousness might be working to reduce procrastination. To-do lists may well be a personality-themed mechanism for successful goal pursuit. Certainly when I see someone who habitually uses a structured and detailed to-do list, I assume that this person is high on the trait of conscientiousness. In fact, personality psychologists might see to-do lists as the “behavioral residue” of conscientiousness, much as a tidy room or consistent achievement striving may indicate the same trait.

Other results from this study support this perspective. Shamarukh found that scores on conscientiousness were related to:

  • Creating to-do lists more often.
  • Using to-do lists more consistently.
  • Having to-do lists that were more organized, structured, and detailed.
  • Habitually creating to-do lists as part of their workflow.

Each of these factors is related to less procrastination. We already knew that higher conscientiousness was related to lower procrastination, but these results may indicate that one of the reasons or mechanisms for this relation is that more conscientious individuals use to-do lists more naturally and effectively. In contrast, people who are low on this trait would feel that using a to-do list is to act out of character, and this is difficult at the best of times.

Finally, in terms of summarizing at least some of her results, there were interesting gender differences evident in the data. Females created to-do lists more often than males. In addition, attributes of to-do lists differed between males and females with females creating to-do lists that were more structured, organized, and detailed—and creating them more habitually. Given that we observed no gender difference in conscientiousness, this seems to indicate other motives for to-do list use. One possibility is that females did score higher on the trait of neuroticism, and it may be “worry” that leads to a greater focus on to-do lists. (A lot more research is needed before I would want to argue that very much.)

It’s important to note that the whole story isn’t captured by personality. We know this from research beyond this study, of course. However, even some of Shamarukh’s results reveal the importance of attitude as much as character. For example, she found that when general to-do lists are considered (i.e., lists that include personal, academic, work entries, etc.), more commitment to to-do lists, intention to complete tasks, value of tasks, and expectancy of task completion were related to less procrastination. Although more conscientious individuals may still have a leg up in terms of these attributes, we can all work to enhance the strength of our goal commitment, task value, expectancy for success, and intention to complete tasks. Personality is not destiny.

What’s the take-home message from this study? To-do lists are effective if you use them, but their use seems to be related, at least to some extent, to how much you like to be organized and structured in the first place.

For those of us who struggle with procrastination and who would also self-describe as low on conscientiousness, it may be time to embrace a strategy that seems out of character. Establishing to-do lists may well be a keystone habit that will make a big difference in getting stuff done.

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