Most of us make to-do lists to keep track of all the things we need to tackle around the house, to keep our families running and to stay on top of tasks at work.
But those lists can get unwieldy. If you often find it hard to check everything off your list despite the best of intentions, welcome to the club.
Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, has been studying the science of motivation for her entire career, and she knows just what it takes to achieve more.
Fishbach is the past president of the Society for the Science of Motivation, and in her debut book, “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation,” Fishbach provides a framework grounded in decades of research that can help you finally get through your weekly to-do lists.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Katy Milkman: Are to-do lists actually useful?
Ayelet Fishbach: To-do lists are useful when they help you offload the mental effort of memorizing your list and negotiating priorities. Also, they’re useful whenever completing one item motivates you to attend to the next one, therefore escalating motivation.
These lists are less useful when they cost you your flexibility. You might pursue some activities only because they’re on the list, even though they’re low priority and completing them won’t make you happy.
In his research, University of Virginia professor Leidy Klotz has found that it’s often more important to subtract, that is remove items from your list, than add new ones. Your weekend might be more restful if you skipped the zoo or the mall.
Milkman: If I have a handful of big goals to accomplish each week around the house, what’s the best tip you can offer me for getting them done
Fishbach: Consider my four-ingredient recipe:
- Set the goal right. You want to set goals that are intrinsically motivating. An approach or “do” goal is better than an avoidance or “do not” goal. “Attend a morning Pilates class” is better than “don’t oversleep.”
- Monitor progress and switch your focus in the middle of your to-do list. Look back at how much you’ve accomplished up to the midpoint and look ahead at what you still need to do beyond the midpoint.
- Your goals should balance — rather than undermine — each other. Any specific goal should fit with everything else you set to do. If you plan to eat more healthily, cross out that trip to the ice-cream shop.
- Seek social support. You should have people around you who want you to succeed and might give you a hand when you need the extra help.