The Psychology and Neurology Behind Our Enduring Need for Checklists |

When it Comes to Web Projects –Write a Plan To Do Something Later and Focus on the Task at Hand

web projects checklistDo you know why we love, no, need checklists? It’s not just for the pleasure of checking something off as completed. It’s making the lists themselves. You would think that, since most of our lives are a never-ending ticker tape of tasks, we would have lost our fondness for writing them all down and then crossing them all off. But we haven’t. And the reason is simply that lists help our brains work positively. Making a plan diminishes anxiety and checking off tasks makes you happy. Although we have a digital world to help us organize, the act of writing involves visual, motor, and cognitive ability. A phone or tablet keyboard activates our brain in a different way. Psychology professor, Dr. Gail Matthews, found that people, who write down goals, not type them, are 33% more likely to complete them.

Most of us know that there’s a sense of order in “getting these tasks out of my head and organized neatly in front of me.” It feels like clearing brain clutter. Transference from the brain didn’t actually commute the thought, did it? Actually it did. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik wrote a thesis in which she explained how our brains hold on to uncompleted tasks. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. It’s that feeling of anxiety because you have this rotating tray of issues and problems and tasks that you haven’t dealt with yet. So you remember the dry cleaning when you’re in the standup meeting and you remember your 10-year-old’s project due tomorrow when you’re at a client’s office. And it’s difficult to articulate a suitable response when your boss asks where you are with one of his priority tasks because your brain is too busy trying to resolve all the uncompleted stuff.

In 2011, researchers EJ Masicampo and RF Baumeister, working for the Florida State University Department of Psychology, did an experiment that tested whether one could mitigate the impact of the the Zeigarnik Effect by making a

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plan to complete a task at a later date. That could include writing the uncompleted task down on a checklist. When working with a group of study subjects, they interrupted a warm-up exercise and delved straight into a brainstorming session. As it turned out, many of the subjects were terribly distracted and incapable of contributing much to the brainstorming session because they were preoccupied with the unfinished warm up exercise. But when some of the subjects made a plan to return and finish the warm up exercise, they could relax and turn their thoughts and creativity to brainstorming.

That’s what writing something down does –it’s making a plan to get something done later, so it doesn’t get in the way of focusing on what you’re doing now. That is, the task at hand. We actually are doing a “brain dump” of sorts with our checklists. But according to the experiment, we don’t have to

actually complete the task to feel the relief so why is the act of checking things off, or crossing them off, so satisfying?

That’s dopamine, a reward chemical that makes us feel great. It’s the same brain chemical that releases into our brains when we fall

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in love, win a game or answer a hard question. For some reason, just knowing we completed a task doesn’t kick the dopamine in in the same way as actually making that little check mark. It’s when we actually do something to signal the completion of the task that we get the little rush.

So when it’s time to tackle a Web project, use all your visual, motor and cognitive skills by creating a digital or handwritten checklist. Some great productivity tools for creating simple checklists are:

  • Ye olde pen and paper - One of my favorites!
  • Funny corporate knock knock checklists
  • Productivity Secrets by Maura Nevel Thomas - a phenomenal productivity system that is simple to incorporate into your work and personal life.
  • Paste Magazine posted their “10 Great Productivity Apps for iPhone and Android” - of course, this changes constantly so search for “productivity tools” for your specific device or check in with your social networks to see what cool new apps folks are using.
  • Word / Excel - I love the strikeout feature in both.
  • Google Docs
  • Basecamp - If you have big checklist needs, aka projects, you can’t go wrong with enterprise solutions. Basecamp’s pricing model has changed - 60 day free trial and $20/month for 10 projects and 3GB of storage space.
  • Zoho Productivity Tools - A one stop shop for productivity, collaboration and more.
  • Franklin Covey - Checklists and productivity philosophy for both old school and digital users.

Whatever method you chose, keep close track of ALL the tasks and mark them off as soon as they’re done. It will make you and your boss happy. Well–at least it will make you happy.

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