June 18, 2018 3 min read



In an earlier post, we went over the general benefits of writing things by hand: increased recall, higher engagement of certain areas of the brain, and so on. In today’s post, we’d like to focus on a particular area we can all benefit from by writing things down by hand: productivity, and the power of the to-do list.

There are plenty of apps out there like Evernote, Onenote, and just the notes app on your cell phone for taking down quick jots of information. There’s nothing wrong with using an app if it works for you, but we find writing things down to be a lot more satisfying, and according to an article on LIfehack, we aren’t the only ones.

In her piece ‘7 Benefits of Bullet Journaling,’ Kathryn Harper writes:

There’s just something about the physical act of writing that helps me remember things more clearly, whether it’s something I have to do, someone’s birthday, or just the name of that book that I wanted to buy.

Bullet journaling is the to-do list on steroids. It organizes and plans out tasks for the months, weeks, and days ahead, then organizes them by priority via a simple legend. Small symbols used as the ‘bullets’ on every list you make denote what kind of thing it is. Tasks are filled in dot bullets, events are open circles, and notes are indicated by a dash.

In the short YouTube video made by the guy who invented bullet journaling, he also explains how to organize tasks over a longer period of time using the bullet journal, and compare what tasks are actually important to you and what you can scrap. In recent years, bullet journaling has become incredibly popular. The short explainer video we just mentioned has over eight million views.

Even if committing to a bullet journal system isn’t for you, simply jotting down daily tasks on a post it or slip of paper has some psychological benefits. According to an article in Fast Company by Art Markman, there are three main things making a simple to-do list can help you with, even if you don’t finish everything on the list:

  • It helps us remember what we have to do that day more effectively, which can be really helpful if you don’t have that bill set up for auto-pay or have an important appointment you don’t want to miss. Once you’ve written down the things you have to do, you’ll remember them better even if you don’t have your list in front of you to refer to.

  • Making to-do lists can also help make vague goals less abstract. You can take that one big goal that you have and break it down into bite-size, achievable steps, then cross them off one by one. You may also discover other steps leading up to that goal that you never would’ve thought of without taking the time to think through it.

  • Writing down your to-do list can help you focus on the essentials. Markman notes (get it,notes? We’re hilarious) in his article that in an office environment, distractions abound. There’s emails, coworker conversations, meetings, and on and on. Writing down tasks helps you commit to them. You’ve already planned them out, so you have to get them done on that day. It gives you a bit more mental fortitude to turn down that offer of an extra donut in the break room if you know you’ve got to get something done. And if, when blocking out things days or weeks in advance, you discover that you don’t have as much time as you thought, that is actually just as useful. You can prune those unnecessary time-sucks from your life once you know what they are.

Several psychological studies cited by the Guardian back this up.

In an article called ‘The psychology of the to-do list: why your brain loves ordered tasks,’ the Guardian cites a study by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, which discovered that we remember the things we still need to do more clearly than what we’ve already done. A study done at Wake Forest University and published in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that writing things down and giving ourselves a plan helps relieve anxiety about pressing tasks so we can complete them with more success.

Your to-do list should be detailed, with each point stating what needs to be done. “Call mom about dad’s surprise birthday party,” is more effective than just, “mom,” for example. Getting specific helps us prioritize our tasks, according to time management expert David Allen.

So make today the day you start being a more productive human being. Grab a notebook, a post-it, a specially designed bullet journal, or scrap of paper and your Modern Fuel pencil and plan out the day. Then go tackle it, you go-getter, you.

Andrew Sanderson
Andrew Sanderson

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