There’s a reason being productive feels so good—our bodies reward us with a shot of dopamine every time we finish something. Because we’re hard-wired with completion bias, we get a little hit of happy any time we recognize a task as complete. Which is great, because without it, only the most driven people would move out of their parent’s basement.
If we keep completing tasks, it builds up momentum and allows us to feel productive, which hopefully lends itself towards progress. The problem is, productivity is a short game, and more often than not setting a goal and making progress towards it is a marathon.
We can check things off a list all day without actually making any progress towards our long-term goals, which is what gives us satisfaction in our jobs and personal lives. The technique for productivity and progress can be similar, but using strategy to get things done is what lends itself to moving the needle forward.
One convenient way to keep track of tasks is with our gadgets and apps. For the most part, our phones are always within arm’s reach. No need to bother carrying around sticky notes or a pad of writing paper and a functioning writing utensil (why are those always so hard to find?!?). Rather than scrawling a check mark like troglodyte, we tap our phone and a check mark symbol appears.
Unfortunately, while we mentally understand we completed a task, digital just won’t do if we want to receive the full benefits of tracking our productivity. To get that rush of dopamine and ensuing sense of accomplishment, we have to physically cross out a task, at least until our biological reactions catch up to the digital age.
Apps are convenient; we can catalogue all our tasks digitally without having to worry about them. Out of sight, out of mind. Which is exactly the problem. Writing a list is an additional step of translating your tasks to your brain so it remembers them. It’s why taking physical notes is encouraged in school rather than typing—it adds an additional level of memorization without an additional step.
Writing a list also forces you to critically evaluate which tasks should be prioritized. Our brains are built to make much more gut-level reactions rather than strategic moves based on priorities. Because of this, the more work we do up front, or the more we mentally manipulate a piece of information, the easier it is to remember it.
I am the chief of refusing to write down any sort of list unless absolutely necessary. I do write a grocery list, but I’ve learned I can order the items according to how I circle the grocery store, and I can remember everything on it with the help of seeing what I need in front of me. But why? Rather than rehearsing my list for the time it takes me to fill the order, I could be thinking about literally anything else. Plans for the weekend, what’s for dinner, the song I can’t get out of my head. Anything other than the meaningless validation I get from being able to get all my groceries without looking at a list. (Admittedly, gamification of menial tasks is way more incentive for me to get things done.)
Give it a shot. If you keep track of your tasks but don’t feel any lasting sense of accomplishment, writing out a list might help. I’ll even go and write mine, once I can find a pen that will write.