When I was a market researcher I used to run focus groups. At the beginning of the focus group I would ask people to introduce themselves and tell me their first name. This was important as it allowed me to engage and address them personally during the session. I found that I could remember and use everyone's name easily and yet after the group was over, the names would float from my head. How could I remember everyone's name in the focus group and yet struggle to remember people's names in my everyday life?
According to psychologists, Kurt Lewin and Bluma Zeigarnik, this isn't unusual. In the late 1920s they published research that demonstrated people are able to recall more of an uncompleted task than a completed one. Whilst the focus group was running, it was an uncompleted task. Once it was finished, my brain would see no reason to hold the information and it would be dumped. Clearing your mind of things that are no longer considered necessary is called the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect reduces stress. It gives you one less thing to think about!
Now we are in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, we have a whole list of different things to think about and stress levels are high. Days of the week blur and we can forget when to put the bins out. We keep running out of food stuffs and household goods and must remember to buy them. These things aren’t world shatteringly important but they cause our stress levels to rise because we are carrying them around in our head.
So, what to do? A story is told about Charles Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel during its paramount days of the early 20th century. Schwab employed Ivy Lee, a consultant, to help him become more efficient in his time management. Lee presented his recommendation in just four sentences. He said:
“Write down the six most important tasks that you have to do tomorrow and number them in order of their importance. Now put this paper in your pocket and the first thing tomorrow morning look at item 1 and start working on it until you finish it. Then do item 2, and so on. Do this until quitting time and don't be concerned if you have finished only 1 or 2”.
It is claimed that after trying this out, Schwab was so pleased with the results he paid Lee $25,000 for the advice - more than half a million dollars in today's money.
So popular are to-do lists they have become an industry. You can tap into numerous software programs that help you produce lists, rank everything in importance, and keep track of how you are getting on. Or there is a simple device called paper and pencil on which you jot down the things you must do.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, once wrote in his blog that the success of his business is mainly the result of his to-do lists. I can't claim that your to-do list will make you a billionaire, but it is worth trying to save mental energy and anxiety in these strange times we are living through.