Why is writing things down demotivating?
April 26, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

As soon as I write something down, I forget about it. This is very problematic for to-do lists... because as soon as I write down a thing I want to do, I no longer feel like doing it and find it uninteresting to even think about (because hey, I wrote it down, so I no longer have to think about it). Help me hack my motivation to overcome this.

It seems that every time I write down a to-do list, I lose the motivation to do any of the things I wrote down... simply because of that act of writing them down.

This is true regardless of whether the things are small, unimportant errands (pick up milk, return a pair of shoes I don't want) or big, inspiring tasks I actually care about (plan my summer garden, host a social event for my friends, practice my photography skills).

I find that keeping a to-do list in my mind, without writing it down, works pretty well. But when I do that, I tend to remember the small errands more than the big inspiring (and often daunting) things. So the reason I want to write things down in the first place is to be able to keep track of and prioritize the important things first, while also not forgetting the small things.

But the basic problem is that as soon as I write things down, it's like my mind is now empty and uninterested in remembering or doing any of those things... almost as if by writing about them, I've actually done them.

A related feeling is that if I write a to-do list and then do all the things on it, I feel kind of robotic and lacking any free will, whereas if I just keep everything in my head and do whatever I feel like, I feel empowered and on top of my game. (But again, that often leads to doing too much busy-work and not enough important-work.)

Has this ever happened to you? How did you deal with it? I want to be able to make to-do lists and still be excited about doing all the things!
posted by danceswithlight to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think it somehow gets registered as "this has been handled" in the mind. I have this problem with bills. I'll get them out, look at them, note the due dates, make sure I have enough money. Finished! Except for the part where you pay it.....
posted by thelonius at 10:42 AM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Write your to do list on your bathroom mirror so you see it all the time.
posted by phunniemee at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength covers a lot of research around exactly this phenomenon. (Plus some other stuff; it's a really interesting book about psychology and not really self-helpy the way it sounds.)

Basically you're right: Deciding to do something later closes an open loop in your brain so you feel like you've done it already -- you've made that decision and moved on. This is why to-do lists are great for people who get overwhelmed by having too much to do -- writing it down closes all of those loops, so they can focus on just one thing at a time.

I'd say you've discovered an important truth about how your brain operates. Don't mess with to-do lists, they just don't work for you!
posted by Andrhia at 10:50 AM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, writing down tasks definitely gets registered as "this has been handled" and feels like closing an open loop in my brain and moving on.

I'd like to know how to overcome that, though. Sometimes I have too much stuff to do to keep it all in my brain.
posted by danceswithlight at 10:59 AM on April 26, 2013

I'm similar...I stopped fighting my brain on this one. Now I only make lists of things I want to let go of and I don't do that for things I'd like to carry around with me. It's like my head is this endless library of my own design. But my words—whether they be spoken or written—check all the thoughts out, never to be returned.

I'm not saying that this is the way to go, but for me the change in perspective fundamentally improved my daily being.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

i have this effect too. thelonius says what i think as well: its no longer active in your brain and so its moved to "done" instead of "Assigned"

this is why frameworks for todo management like "31 folders" and GTD are so popular... they hotwire your brain and trick you into getting that "need to do this" feeling back, on demand, when its more appropriate for the task in question while allowing you to jot stuff done so as not to forget it...
posted by chasles at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2013

This is the whole point of using to do lists. Read 'Getting Things Done'.

You off load stuff onto your list so you don't need to think about them. The next step is to think about lists instead of items. You need to organize your to do lists and check them constantly. Organize your lists by time and context. There are a bunch of systems out there to do this, just find one that works for you.
posted by empath at 11:01 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reward yourself when you cross the task off your list. Can be small/cheap, etc., but definitely something that you enjoy (chocolate, latte, etc.) and that you don't get otherwise. I used a spritz of my favorite scent, which was wonderfully uplifting, and as the sense of smell retains the feeling--everything I smelled that scent, I remembered how happy it made me, and that feeling went along with doing the task and crossing it off my list. I also do the most unfun thing first, so the rest of the list seems easier.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

ya sorry i used the acronym GTD but assumed you would know: "getting things done" is a mantra, a book, practically a theology.

and of course my stupid brain typed "31 folders" and what i meant was "43 folders"

stupid brain.
posted by chasles at 11:04 AM on April 26, 2013

The people I know who do well with to-do lists have two qualities. They all find it really satisfying to cross an item off the list. And they all find it really frustrating to find themselves at the end of a day or week with items still un-crossed-off.

So the question is, do you get those feelings? And if not, is there some way you can cultivate them?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:05 AM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you set an alarm on your phone to check your to do list? Maybe even make your to do list on your phone? Or on the computer using something like Remember the Milk? They have ways to remind yourself when you get to a location or at a certain time for certain tasks, too.

Mechanical reminders can be a big help.
posted by ldthomps at 11:07 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

wow i suck today. forget my blind trust that 43folders.come did a good job of explaining it.... sigh

here it is in a nutshell:

1. make 31 folders numbered 31 (for the days of the month)
2. make 12 folders, one for each month.
3. keep the folder in the appropriate month (those days that havent come yet go in THIS month, those that HAVE go in next month
4. write stuff down and keep: scraps of newspaper, post its, bills in the mail... doesn't matter, just dont forget is the key.
5. every night put the little scraps of paper you have accumulated into one of the 31 big folders sometime in the future based on any arbitrary reason ("oh the 12th is pretty empty" is as valid as "got to be the 23rd since thats rent due date")
6. every day empty that day of "tasks" by doing something.
7. never move a paper out of the assigned date to a future date. that's the only rule, no procrastinating.

this is my favorite life hack, and i used it for years until my brain was trained to do stuff as i desired...

essentially its this
posted by chasles at 11:12 AM on April 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

If the trouble is that you don't feel like doing stuff once it's on a list, make to-do lists of only the boring, essential stuff, bill-paying, milk-getting - because you've *got* to do those things anyway, right, whether you have the motivation or not and whether they're on a list or not, rents gotta be paid, and maybe the act of successfully completing lists - which you will have had to have done in order to eat, keep your house, etc - will help your brain decide they are useful & you like doing it?

Meantime you get to save your brain list for the big picture gardens, movie nights, whatever. Maybe nearer the time, you can start breaking down the big things into small, boring, essential tasks that are required for the big fun thing (buy popcorn, rent movie).

Fwiw, I find Trello useful for lists, but I'm a ticker-offer :)
posted by symphonicknot at 11:45 AM on April 26, 2013

Something that really, really has helped me is to reduce the number of items that I might otherwise put on a task list.

So, if it occurs to me that I need to make a doctor's appointment and it's during business hours, instead of writing this down for later, I pick up the phone and take care of it right then. It's kind of a variation of that rule that you should throw away, act on, or file a piece of paper as soon as you put your hand on it.

Kind of different but related, I don't think of long-term goals as tasks so much. I know it helps some people to break down every project into tiny action steps, but that's not how I'm wired. So if I wanted to plan my summer garden, for example, it wouldn't help me to write down the tasks along the way. Instead, I would just make it a routine to every day do one or two things (or set aside 15 to 30 minutes) to further the goal of planning the garden, without anything specific in mind. I am pretty sure I read about this in Lifehacker, but I can't find that post now.
posted by payoto at 11:54 AM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

What if you don't write down the item completely? So, suppose you have this task: "Pick up bananas at the store." Maybe, instead of writing all that down, write down, "Pick up bananas at the st" or "Pck p bnns t th str" or something like that... Write down something that will help you remember, but keep it somehow incomplete.

This is a really simple, silly little trick. It might even seem stupid. But, if the problem you have is that it feels "finished" once it's written down, this may be helpful. I'm not saying it'd totally solve your problems with feeling motivated, but it may help.
posted by meese at 12:06 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I suffer from the same sickness at the OP, and I don't think that GTD is the silver bullet here.

GTD relies on a less pathological form of what's happening here: writing things down gets them off of your brain so that you can focus on other things. The problem comes when you are bad at looking at your list (of perfectly broken down and granularized Next Actions) and feel no desire to do _any_ of them.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:56 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is tangentially related but it might have some bearing on your question. I read a cognitive science article about memory, knowledge retention and technology. The researchers found that people are less likely to retain factual information they read through an internet search versus in print because the brain's retrieval system assumes that the internet information is stored in an "external hard drive" as it were, so it assigns higher importance to remembering the information it won't have access to later.

It may be that subconsciously when you write something down you assume that it will naturally be taken care of later, whereas if you don't write it down you're more likely to remember it and do it and there's a certain urgency if you think you might forget.

I really like to follow the "touch every paper once" rule and just get minor tasks done right away whenever possible. It helps my efficiency because I don't have to prioritize unimportant, quick things along with big, complex things which are where I'd prefer to focus my attention.
posted by mermily at 12:57 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I either put the note where I'm forced to see it (for immediate tasks) or set up an alarm in my calendar system. If it's a big life goal set up a recurring alarm (once a week, once a month, whatever seems appropriate) and mark off progress every time the alarm pops up.
posted by anaelith at 3:31 PM on April 26, 2013

I'm sorry I have nothing more than "me too" - I'd like to know how to break this, also. GTD can lead to just endless fiddling with your lists and cards, for people like me. I need something as simple as possible. Maybe one of those "don't break the chain" things, to help me think every day, is there some simple thing that was supposed to get paid or returned etc today?
posted by thelonius at 6:15 PM on April 26, 2013

This is just a thought, but what if you practice using a list? Set aside 30 minutes, write down a few small tasks, and then make yourself do them and check them off. Cheer yourself for each one.

Alternatively: What happens if you write tasks down, but in a reminder app so that they don't come up until a few days later? If it pops up on your screen in one week, do you still feel it's been "dealt with?"

Also - you could try using the list in your head by breaking down the big tasks that are giving you trouble to the next doable task. So instead of keeping the big task on your mental list you just keep the next step of the big task on your mental list.

One more idea - write things down on postits and put them in mildly annoying places. Your rule is that you cannot remove the post-it from the cabinet door, laptop screen, mirror, whatever, until the task is done. The desire to remove the post it might possibly override the feeling that the task has been completed.
posted by bunderful at 9:50 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make a voice recording of your tasks rather than a written list.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:02 AM on April 27, 2013

We are all wired differently and I think this post is pretty illustrative of that. Several people have chimed in and acknowledged struggling with the same issue. It's one that I have as well and, if I had to guess, I would bet that those of us who share this struggle share some personality characteristics.

Under the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, I test as an INTP. The following description of an INTP type characteristic is one that really resonated with me and this thread:

A further result of the Ti function is the concept, lived out by many an INTP, that knowledge is everything. They tend to believe that information is the key to life. All mistakes can be avoided by having the right information at the right time. This has at least a certain logic about it. Where they differ from other temperaments (especially from SP types) is that a large gap may exist between knowing and doing. To know is everything, to do is a lower order necessity, if it is necessary at all. This breeds the potential for lazy aloofness. The INTP is often satisfied simply by knowing that he could do something if he wished. Source.

In essence, by taking the time to think a project through and create a task list, we have distilled the project to its discrete elements and that is enough. Until I started reading more about the various personality types, I sort of assumed everyone's brains worked the same way. Obviously, they don't. Generally speaking, the people who are good about getting things done and keeping up with things are the same people who have trouble with creative thoughts and uncertainty. That doesn't mean that we can't develop and accommodate for our default ways of processing, but it means that that the things that readily work for other types do not work at all for your type.

This has given me enough perspective to stop beating myself up for having so much trouble with keeping up with a to do list. Instead, I make serious effort to keep a calendar with deadlines and some basic goals. I do my best to review it every few days and I use that to plan my days. As a result, I get broad strokes on paper, but keep the details in my head. And, usually, when it's time to actually deal with the details, I try to get as much done as possible when I start putting pen to paper (or words to screen).

Another way to deal with this is to work closely with someone who is a detail type (typically having a "J" at the end of their type) that way you both benefit from one another's strengths.
posted by ajr at 8:52 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me is to make a ritual of actually crossing the item off the list in some way. Keep tic marks for number of things crossed off, jump up and down, shout "yay!", whatever will serve to mark the actual drawing a line through the thing as something that has been accomplished.
posted by yohko at 2:24 PM on April 27, 2013

OK, this is a sort of halfway method that might work for you: Instead of writing down a list of actual tasks to be performed (buy gift for party, send apologetic email to client, proofread document, mop the floor) keep a list of projects or events (birthday party, Client A, lLient B, housework).

I have such a projects list and consult it when I make my to-do lists -- it helps me to keep tabs on all of my balls in the air, which is especially handy when I've got six projects running concurrently and I'm in danger of forgetting something urgent for one area because I'm so focused on another. This might give you a similar helpful trigger to remember all of the *kinds* of things you have to do without capturing *specific tasks* and moving them to the "I thought about that already" portion of your brain. Worth a shot, anyway?
posted by Andrhia at 9:15 PM on April 27, 2013

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