You've been doing your to-do list all wrong. Here's how to make it work.

This article was originally published by The Australian Financial Review
By Dr Amantha Imber

January 30, 2019

Productivity experts pass on their tips to help you work smarter, not harder.
I love to-do lists. I switched to task-management app Wunderlist many years ago, and there is nothing quite like the musical ding that sounds when I tick off an item. I am also a fan of pen and paper lists – the act of making a physical tick always brings a moment of deep satisfaction.
However, the problem with most to-do lists is they don’t discriminate between the type of thinking that different tasks require, and the fact our brain is suited to different types of thinking depending on the time of day. For example, a three-hour task requiring deep thinking often appears on the same list as “call back John from Acme”.

It takes discipline to prioritise the meaty three-hour challenge over the quick call. Sadly, our self-control muscle appears to be limited.

In an article published by the British Psychological Society, Professor Roy Baumeister writes: “When people exert self-control, they use up some of this energy, leaving them in a temporarily depleted state. If they try to exert self-control again soon after … they tend to do worse than if they had not previously exerted self-control. Thus, self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish.”
This becomes problematic with to-do lists. The quicker (and almost always less effective) tasks get prioritised because they are easier and thus require less self-control, and the hard work remains at the bottom of the list.
I suggest splitting your one mega to-do list into four separate ones to take advantage of how your brain works. I call each of these lists focused, creative, foggy and fast.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of thinking our brain engages in at work. The first is focused, analytical thinking. This requires deep concentration and, ideally, longer bursts of time. Most of us are at our most cognitively sharp in the morning, according to Duke University psychology professor Dan Ariely.

In an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Ariely wrote: “One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity. If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.”

As such, we need a to-do list that is purely reserved for “focused” work. This should become the first list we look at every morning.
The second type is creative thinking. This requires our brain to be less vigilant and open to breaking rules. Research by Mareike Wieth and Professor Rose Zacks demonstrated we are better at thinking creatively at our “non-optimal” times. For most of us, this is in the afternoon, when our brain is a bit “looser” and carefree.
Because of this, the second type of to-do list we need is one for “creative” tasks. This can become our go-to task list for the afternoon.
The third state in which we often find our brain is a foggy state. Psychologists refer to it as the “post-lunch dip”, and many of us find ourselves less cognitively alert straight after lunch or during a mid-afternoon slump.
This is the perfect time to be doing what Professor Cal Newport refers to as “shallow work”, such as checking and responding to emails, making phone calls, and doing repetitive or non-challenging tasks.
Your third to-do list, the “foggy list”, needs to capture all tasks that don’t require your brain for heavy lifting.
The final list is the “fast” list, which should contain tasks that can be done in less than five minutes. It’s the perfect way to remain productive when we have short gaps in the day. It could be when a meeting finishes a few minutes early but we have another one starting on the hour; or we know we are about to get interrupted with a scheduled call and don’t want to dive into a task requiring deep concentration that we will be taken away from.
We have many of these idle minutes throughout a week and when we don’t use them productively, they can add up to many lost hours.
Rather than let to-do lists crush your productivity, rethink how you use them to help get your work done at a time that is in sync with the natural rhythm of your brain power.