Your To Do List May Be Longer Than You Think

to do list tattoo

I read a lot of books and articles on things like brain science, psychology, productivity, and memory. One thing that tends to come up often as I read is that the brain sees any incomplete task or goal as part of your to-do list. Even if you aren’t consciously thinking of it, anything that you have left undone lingers in the subconscious and will periodically torment you until it’s finished.

This applies to everything in your environment including unpaid bills, an unfinished presentation for work, unread books, a Tivo full of unwatched shows, or hobbies that you started but never did anything with. You may not have these things on your immediate to-do list (in fact, they may not have been important to you for months or years), but your brain does. As far as your brain is concerned, these things all represent projects or goals that you started and have yet to finish. As such, your brain keeps them stored in your subconscious and periodically “pokes” you with reminders (usually, it seems, in the form of guilt or stress) that you have all these undone things to do.

It’s up to your conscious mind to assign priority to these things, which is why the things that are most immediate (finish that presentation for work, call the plumber, pick up the kids, shop for dinner, etc.) are the ones that get written down on an actual to do list. Those things get accomplished first. But your unconscious brain is still keeping track of those other things it thinks you have to do. Whether you realize it or not, they’re causing you stress.

You’ve probably experienced this. Ever walk by that shelf of books you bought but haven’t yet read and felt guilty or thought, “Man, I’ve really got to get on that?” Or looked at your DVD collection and thought, “I spent the money for that video, I feel bad I haven’t watched it yet.” Or walked past that stack of bills you’ve been meaning to pay or bank statements you’ve been meaning to review and felt your stress level ratchet up just a bit? None of those things may have been on your conscious to-do list for the day, but your brain thinks they are (or should be).

This little phenomenon has implications for our financial lives. Many of us have a lot of stuff in hour house that we bought but have yet to use. We have books we haven’t read, games we haven’t played, hobby supplies for hobbies that never got off the ground, china we’ve never used, and movies we haven’t watched. Not only is all of this stuff taking up space, it’s likely causing us stress because our brains are constantly thinking, “Gotta use that, gotta play with that, really shouldn’t have bought that, what was I thinking,” and it eventually turns to a different message that says, “Gotta find the time to get rid of all of that, it’s taking up too much space, I’m an idiot for having spent the money on that,” until eventually you give in and either use it or get rid of it. But during all those months and years that go by in between, you’re experiencing a very subtle form of stress that eats away at you.

This makes the case for buying far less stuff. The less you own, the less you leave unused, and the less your brain adds to the to-do list. It also makes the case for taking care of your finances and not procrastinating. Even if something doesn’t seem urgently important to you (like getting a will made, for example), your brain thinks differently. It knows it needs to get done so you will be bothered about it until you do it.

If you’re already surrounded by unused stuff, untouched hobbies, or undone tasks, make it a point to deal with them. Either use or donate/toss the stuff. Make a move to actively participate in the hobby, or disregard it once and for all. Deal with your paperwork, or make a conscious decision that certain things don’t have to be done at all. The part of your to-do list over which you exert conscious control every day is tiny compared to the to-do list that your subconscious is harboring. Make it easier on your brain and free yourself from some stress by buying less, procrastinating less, and using what you already own to its fullest.

(Photo courtesy of robstephaustralia)

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4 Responses to Your To Do List May Be Longer Than You Think

  1. dave says:

    Never really thought of it this way, but it seems to make sense. I know I have a lot of those little things that I could do a better job of taking care of rather than procrastinating until it becomes such a stress that it forces me to do it. I think I need to set up a different trigger in my life for when these need to be taken care of rather than when it’s just so bad that there is no other option.

  2. I am horrible with procrastinating little tasks. The problem is that they always become bigger than they should be and it increases my stress level way too much.

  3. I try to write down longer-term things on my to-do list so that it’s on paper and out of my mind. I definitely agree that it’s better to deal with something or let it go, and I often let something “drop” off my to-do list if I haven’t touched it in a few weeks, realizing that it will never be a high enough priority for me to actually do it.

  4. Mr.CBB says:

    I used to make mental lists for years and to some extent I still do. Now I write down everything I can think of on a to-do list I created (free tool at my blog) and keep it on the refrigerator. It’s easier to remember when I see it written out but my mind is always adding to. I just have to remember to add to it. I just finally started reading a book I bought at a garage sale this past weekend. I just did it!

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