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Why Your "To-Do" List Drives You Crazy

The science of unfinished business.

If you’re like me and most of the people I know, the unfinished business on that list probably gets under your skin occasionally, if not all the time. I’m not just talking about the small things—the red clothing waiting to be laundered separately, the closet that’s screaming for a makeover, the papers in need of filing—but the bigger things that are on the life list you’ve got in your head. You know that list: The unwritten one that features all the goals you intend to accomplish so that a new and improved you, along with a new re-figured life, will emerge.

Things left undone have a way of haunting both our waking hours and our dreams—like the dream that you forgot to take a course or hand in a paper so that you won’t graduate after all, or thinking, in the middle of the night, that somehow you forgot to go to work yesterday. Sometimes, being preoccupied with the “undone” actually gets in the way of getting things done, which is why, for some of us, the “to do” list is nothing more than a testament to failure: The 10 pounds not lost, the project left incomplete, The Great American Novel still unwritten, and so forth.

That inner nag is coming from your unconscious mind and it even has a scientific name: The Zeigarnik effect. The good news is that there’s a way to deal with it—and, no, it doesn’t involve ripping your written list to shreds or abandoning the one in your head.

I happen to love the probably apocryphal story of how Bluma Zeignarnik made her discovery, so I’ll tell it whether it’s true or not. Imagine Vienna in the late 1920s. (Hear the violins playing waltzes? See the gorgeous Sachertorte and other pastries piled high on silver trays?) Then picture a very crowded restaurant where a large group of budding psychologists, Zeigarnik among them, is having lunch. She’s astounded to see that when the waiter takes their orders, he doesn’t write a single thing down and then, miracle of miracles, puts the right plate in front of each person at the table. She finds herself pondering how he has managed to train his prodigious memory in this way.

Once lunch is over, the group leaves the restaurant and then Zeignarik realizes she’s left something behind at the table. She goes back inside and asks the waiter for his help. It’s clear by the look on his face that he doesn’t remember her at all, even though she left minutes earlier; in fact, he has no recall of the food ordered and delivered to the table or anything else.

She was dumbfounded: How could a man with such a fabulous memory have no recall at all? His explanation is simple, if counterintuitive: He only remembers the order as long as he has to. The minute the plates hit the table, the order is promptly forgotten.

That got Zeigarnik thinking. Did the mind deal with unfinished tasks differently from completed ones? If so, why? She conducted a number of experiments, assigning students the task of completing a complicated jigsaw puzzle with the instruction that they were to persist until it was done. But she and her colleagues deliberately interrupted some of the students in mid-stream so they couldn’t finish. Those students were then given other tasks to complete which were supposed to distract them from the original, uncompleted goal of assembling the jigsaw. What Zeignarik found was that even when the students were instructed not to think about the unfinished puzzle, they thought about it twice as much as all the tasks they’d finished.

The Zeignarik effect has been replicated in many other studies and explains why unfinished business—the undone tasks on your to-do list, the important conversations you’ve been putting off, the decision or action you’re just not ready to tackle quite yet—preoccupies you, me, and everyone else in ways that the things we’ve actually accomplished and crossed off our lists don’t, and why—if it’s something important—it can actually wake us up at 3 a.m. While that inner nag can sometimes act like a strict and demanding life coach, it can also get in the way of tackling some of the items on that list that you could accomplish. Focusing on what’s not done can leave you feeling lousy about yourself, nervous or anxious, not to mention sleep-deprived.

So what to do? Should we all just ditch those to-do lists? Well, actually no.

Research by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister showed that by making plans to get things done, that inner nag can be turned off, or at least toned down. What’s interesting is that the plan doesn’t actually have to be carried out; just making the plan will help still that inner unhelpful voice telling you that “you never finish anything!” so that you can get yourself moving again.

Their study, it should be said, wasn’t a total slam-dunk for those of us with lists that are filled with unfinished goals and aspirations. Planning didn’t make the participants feel any less anxious when they thought about unfinished business, even though they had fewer intrusive thoughts.

So, alas, it seems that the only way to feel less anxious about what you haven’t yet done is to plan on doing it and get it done. Otherwise, put on your most realistic game face and cross it off the list so you can focus on what’s possible.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2013


Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney, Willpower. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024192

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