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How a To-Do List Can Save Your Sanity

For real.

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who never use a to-do list. I hear things like: “I keep it all in my head” or “I like to be flexible and see how my day goes”. In a way it sounds fabulous, you’ve got it all under control, you’re so relaxed you just don’t need to worry about what’s coming up next or you’re just full of baloney and are a hot mess.

Now, truly maybe you’ve got it all under control and worry never clouds your mind. While I tend to have things under control (because I use a list!), worry tends to fill my mind with big fluffy clouds and I know from my own experience — without some kind of a list… yup, I am a hot mess (and then I stress out and eat too many Hershey kisses).

So if you don’t use a list or you’ve stopped using a list for whatever reason, keep reading. Why? Because a to-do list can:

Calm You Down
Have you ever tried to read a book, have a conversation with someone or fall asleep, yet something continually runs through your mind over and over and OVER again? Well according to psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind there is good reason. He says, “the conscious mind can only pay attention to about three or four things at once.” So if we write down what we need to do, we free up that precious mental space. If we don’t, we stress that we will forget what we need to get done and that worry goes around and around in our mind.

If you don’t believe Levitin, consider the work done by Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, early 20th century Russian psychiatrist and psychologist. Her observations led to the discovery of the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people will remember things that haven’t been completed versus things that are completed. So if something is not written down, the around and around thoughts can lead to anxiety.

You see, the brain is a natural problem solver — so unless something is effectively put to rest, the brain will continue to try to figure out a solution. When you get something out of your brain and onto a list it frees up a whole lot of mental space.

Make You Happy
I have one word for you here—dopamine. When you check something off your to-do list—your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine and without getting into all the techy and nerdy details I’m going to tell you it just makes you feel good.

So checking things off the list, even small things—can feel very satisfying and rewarding. This can encourage a habit, which in turn allows you to get a ton done.

Keeping a list also lets you look back at the end of the day or week and see how much you did accomplish. Kinda makes you feel like a superstar.

Give You (the feeling of) Control
Ever feel like you’ve got SO much to do and you just don’t know where or how to get started? It feels like everything needs to get done now and the pressure just continues to build. When you write things down it’s out of your head and you’re looking at it in black and white. It puts you in control, giving you clarity on what needs to be done and what doesn’t.

Now I know last week I talked about why to-do lists don’t work. You may be thinking, “Mimi, you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.” But the truth is I do want you to use them, but I want you to use them well. So next week we’ll be talking the kinds of lists you really need… and no, it’s not just one.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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