Sleep better with to-do lists

Our tips and favorite tools for task lists

Is there any better feeling than finally finishing a task you had been putting off for a long time? I always feel as if a weight has fallen from my shoulders. If I’m able to complete a few big tasks on a given day, the feeling of accomplishment and relief is even greater. But, unfortunately, it never lasts long.

Even after a productive day, the tasks I haven’t yet gotten around to will suddenly pop up in my head – especially when I’m trying to get to sleep.  The birthday present I still need to get for my friend, that I need to call my grandma tomorrow, the email I forgot to respond to today... I tell myself that I’ll take care of them first thing tomorrow and that I really should get to sleep now so that I can do so – but then it’s impossible to stop thinking about them. And the many tasks I was so relieved to finish? Completely forgotten. If the same thing happens to you, that’s because this is a common phenomenon. In the field of Psychology, the Zeigarnik effect is a theory that says that people better remember unfinished tasks than those they completed.

So, are you doomed to spend sleepless nights ruminating about the assignment you have coming up? Not necessarily. According to a study by Scullin et. al. (2018) a to-do list may help if unfinished tasks are keeping you up at night. How can that be? Writing down (or typing) the tasks you have to do gives your brain the feeling that it’s already taken measures to complete the task.

I’ve always been a firm believer in task lists even before I knew about this trick, and I’ve included some of my favorite tips and tools for creating task lists below.

How should you work with to-do lists?

To-do lists can be as easy or complex as you want them to be. The most basic version is a simple list with each task written on a separate line. If you want, you can add a due date for the task, a priority level, and an assessment of how long you expect it to take. The amount of detail you add is up to you. Especially for routine tasks, a couple of words are enough to later remember what steps make up the task. On the other hand, complicated tasks might need a longer description so that you don’t forget an important step when completing them.

How can you best keep track of your tasks? For me, what works is to create a daily list with the tasks for the next day. This list contains a maximum of three tasks. At the top is the most important task of the day that I definitely want to complete. The two other tasks could also be taken care of another time if something more urgent comes up.

In addition to my daily list, I also maintain a general list that contains all the tasks that I want to complete at some point. I regularly move tasks from my general list to the list for the next day. I can also add them to a  weekly list which contains all the tasks I want to complete during the current week. I call this general list (which in the meantime is nearly the length of a book!) my “external brain”. By using this list, I free up my real brain from having to remember all the tasks I have to complete at some point. I’m so used to it now that without it, I feel lost.

If you notice that you tend to procrastinate on some tasks or that they never make it on to your daily list, it could be because they are too large or complex. Such tasks can be broken down into smaller sub-tasks. Make sure to make the sub-tasks as specific as possible. For example, if your task is “Read book” it can be very daunting to think about the 300 pages you have to complete, and you might be more likely to avoid the task. If you instead create the task “Read chapter 1”, the task will seem much more achievable and you’re more likely to start and perhaps even continue on with the second chapter.

To keep on top of your tasks, it’s good to keep your to-do list visible and easily accessible. If you’re always checking your phone, task apps might be the best fit for you. For others, a handwritten list on a piece of paper or in a small calendar or book will work just as well. Whatever format you use, make sure that it’s something you like to work with, since doing so can help make keeping track of your tasks more fun.

Which tools or apps are good for your to-do lists?

Depending on the task type or the role in my life it belongs to, I use different types of to-do lists and different tools. Doing so helps me better separate my personal and professional life.  

These are some of my favorite types of lists:

Personal task lists

I keep my personal to-do list in a nice-looking notebook, but I’ve also experimented with apps in the past.

  • Handwritten to-do lists

During the day I rarely write out anything by hand, even though I enjoy doing so. For that reason, I purchase nice-looking notebooks or notepads to write down my tasks. Each day gets a new page all to itself.  Whenever I complete a task, I cross it out with gusto to get it completely out of my mind. At the end of the day, I tear out the page to mentally complete the day. Now that I know that to-do lists can help with sleep, I write out the tasks for the next day before going to bed instead of first thing in the morning.

  • Task apps

There are countless planning apps available for my Android smartphone. Todoist, Microsoft To Do or Remember The Milk are just a few examples. To use the apps you just need to create an account. The features are similar: you can create and share tasks and subtasks, view and rearrange them, and check them off when they’re done. Tasks can also be assigned to certain lists, for example, a list for household tasks. In this way you can better organize your tasks. I especially like Todoist’s design. Since the features of the different apps are similar, it’s good to try out a couple and see which ones work best for you. Since you should enjoy working with the app every day, the look and feel can be a more important factor than might be the case with other tools.

Professional task lists

If you work on a computer, your task list should also be located there, ideally directly in your browser. If you’re often on the go, apps or handwritten lists might work better for you.

When I start up my PC in the morning, the first thing I do is open my task list in my browser to get an overview of everything I need to take care of for the day. If I don’t have any tasks, I move over three tasks from my general list and give them the due date “Today”.

Not everything is online right away, though. During a phone call I’ll often jot down a quick note on a piece of scrap paper instead of trying to type while I talk. Later on I’ll transfer any notes containing tasks to my online tool and will get rid of the piece of paper.

My colleagues and I use Asana to keep track of tasks. To a large extent, this task and project management tool has even replaced our team’s email communication. I don’t just see the tasks I’ve created for myself, I also see the tasks that my colleagues assigned to me. All tasks that need to be taken care of today are displayed so that I see them first. During the day it can happen that more tasks appear in my “Today” section. I’ll then break these tasks up into sub-tasks, tag them, add them to projects, or change the task color to better distinguish them from others. Tasks can be created by email and completed tasks can be checked off. I can highly recommend Asana, but there are other similar tools for task and project management that I haven’t tried, such as Trello or Hitask.

Task lists for your studies

Since you’ll usually write your research paper or thesis on your computer, it makes sense to keep track of the many tasks associated with this project in the same tool you’re already using for your research. This way you don’t need to install additional software or open yet another browser tab, although an online tool might be useful to keep open in your browser at the beginning when you start searching for sources. When you start planning and writing your paper, you’ll usually be working primarily in your Word processor and reference management program. If you happen to be using the reference management program Citavi, it makes sense to keep track of your tasks there.

Citavi’s Task Planner is designed for all tasks related to academic research. In this workspace you can add tasks for each individual source. For example, for a book you need to bring back to the library, you can create the task “Return” and enter the due date. There are predefined tasks common to all academic research workflows, but you can also create your own. You can also keep track of when a task should be completed, what priority level it has, and you can even assign tasks to others in group projects. Tasks can also be created for your project as a whole. For example, you can create a task for the date on which you need to hand in your research paper. The video below shows the Task Planner in action:

Instead of counting sheep the next time you find unfinished tasks running through your head while trying to sleep, write them down or enter them in your task app. We hope the method will work as well for you as it has for us!

How do you keep track of your tasks? Do you also use different systems depending on the task type or role? Let us know by leaving a comment under the Facebook post for this blog article.


For Further Reading:

Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 139–146.

Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 7/28/2020
Tags: Time management Work better

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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