Checking off our to-dos makes us happy, and others, too

I am not a classic neatnik, but I do believe in the power of task management, and I work fairly diligently to keep my tasks organized into projects and to update them frequently. And when I work with others, I rely on shared task managers — like Asana and in the past Basecamp — to coordinate.

So I am interested in the psychology of task management, the motivations for keeping my tasks updated. I stumbled upon some recent research done at Florida State University that suggests that just straightening up your plans for how to finish pending tasks will make you more capable of getting other work done.

Tom Stafford, The psychology of the to-do list

Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is what psychologists call our mind’s tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. You can see the effect in action in a restaurant or bar – you can easily remember a drinks order, but then instantly forget it as soon as you’ve put the drinks down. I’ve mentioned this effect before when it comes to explaining the psychology behind Tetris.

A typical way to test for the Zeigarnik Effect is to measure if an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.

So, this is one reason why going through your to do list regularly increases your productivity: you can move past the Zeigarnik effect caused by unfinished tasks simply by imagining the next steps to take to accomplish them. Then the unfinished work can be forgotten for the time being, and we can think about other more urgent tasks.

Increasingly, we are operating in social tools that stream a series of updates to us, including the news that others in our workgroups are completing tasks. Robert Levin wrote about the ‘time flies’ effect related to feeling that progress is being made toward some goal:

Robert Levin, A Geography Of Time

Psychologists and planners have sometimes used the “time flies” phenomenon to their advantage. In one project, for example, psychologist Robert Meade was able to improve workers’ morale by speeding up the psychological clock. Meade took advantage of the fact that that time is experienced as shorter when people believe that they are making progress toward a goal. The sense of progress, he found, can be enhanced through simple procedures such as establishing a definite end point to the task and providing incentives to reach those goals. Before his experiment, Meade heard comments from workers like “It sees like the day would never end” or “It seems like I’ve been here all day but it’s not even lunchtime yet.” After establishing a sense of progress there were proclamations like “The day went by so quickly — it seems like I just got started.” It is difficult to know, of course, to what extent speeding up the passage of time led to a more pleasant experience  or vice versa. The direction of cause and effect, however, is less important than the net effect on workers’ well-being. Employers might be pleased to note that these increases in morale are often accompanied by accelerated production.

In our social workstreams, people are updating status messages based on accomplishing tasks — shipped proposal to Jone Co, pushed new baseline of the UX mockups, completed first draft of the Big Data report — and as these pass by to the workgroup the Meade effect takes hold: people sense that the group is making progress toward shared goals, and time seems to pass faster for everyone.

We are all aware of that there is a link between the feeling that time is passing quickly and happiness. We don’t know, psychologically, which is influencing which. But nonetheless, one direct consequence of this linkage is that people are happier when they sense progress being made, even when it is others that are checking off their own goals.

Another proof that happiness is catching, like head colds, and a great argument for sharing the checking off of to-dos: it makes others feel more productive, and happy, as well.