This To-Do List Hack Helps You Keep The Big Picture In Mind, Making Your Short- & Long-Term Goals Achievable

When it comes to keeping track of everything going on in our lives, many of us choose to keep some semblance of a to-do list. Unfortunately, actually accomplishing things on your to-do list can feel stressful or anxiety-inducing, as we typically associate to-do lists with tasks we're putting off. Some psychologists suggest, however, a to-do list hack that may make them more pleasant overall — thereby helping us get all those task completed a little easier.

In a piece for Fast Company highlighted by Science of Us, psychologist Art Markman of the University of Texas suggests writing big picture goals in to-do lists to make the list more gratifying and help us see beyond the daily grind of our jobs and other obligations. The idea here is that while many of us do have big dreams and long-term goals, we rarely write them down. We even more rarely write down the little ways we work toward accomplishing them.

That's where Markman's idea comes in. At Fast Company, he explains, "When you look at the list, you’ll recognize several items each week that relate to your core goals, which can help put the more boring tasks into perspective. ...That gives you a daily reminder that your job is more than just a sequence of small, boring, urgent duties to execute — because you’ve planned it to be."


As Cari Romm explains at Science of Us, the idea here is that you're turning whatever job or goal you're working on into something that makes you happy by providing a balance of the tasks you need to accomplish (like paperwork or a stressful meeting) with a list of tasks that show how you are actively working toward your abstract goals (like providing good customer service or working on your own professional development). This ultimately helps you remember the big picture, keeping in mind why you're doing these tasks to begin with: What are your dreams? Where do you want all of this to lead you?

In general, the psychology behind to-do lists is pretty interesting stuff. Some people think to-do lists are helpful because they keep us organized, while others think their true value is in holding us accountable to ourselves. And there are plenty of people who live by to-do lists in formats like the "Bullet Journal," where you continuously rewrite tasks until they are complete — ensuring that you won't forget to mail your rent check or call your great-aunt.


As Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, explains over at Psychology Today, to-do lists can be excellent for accomplishing tasks, but they often fail because they are not specific enough. This ties into the importance of incorporating "big picture" ideas into our to-do lists. As Halvorson explains, "The first is that we don’t get specific enough about what exactly needs to happen — the specific actions we need to take to reach our goals. If your goal is to make a good impression on your boss, you need to break that down into actions like arranging a weekly meeting, or turning in reports on time. To-do lists can help with this part of the problem, so long as they are made up of specific actions, rather than vague goals."

No matter what your dreams or goals are, you have to find a way to turn them from the abstract concept into concrete tasks you can accomplish. This may help you feel like your to-do list is enriching you, rather than weighing you down.

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