I've watched these two videos recently

What this author suggests is writing down your tasks instead of keeping it in your prefrontal cortex, therefore you'll be more free to think about task at hand. I think I've read the book long time ago and there is some research mentioned (as in most books alike).

Except for complex tasks that need to be broken down, I almost never had the benefit of writing task to a to do list. I actually found it terrible that my brain seemed to partially forget things while relying on the list [ which I didn't bring with me or I was in the hurry and forgot to look into my phone app]. I don't know if I was biased by the content of the book or if there is some science behind forgetting tasks that you jot down on the piece of paper.

I understand that some people have a more complex day than me and need todo list for not-so-related things, but I find it somewhat scary that so many people so easily rely on something else remembering things for them.

I tried using lists because I was afraid I'll forget what I need to do. When it started bothering me, I decided not to write anything but longer grocery lists. And it's interesting how my brain started remembering things and recalling them exactly when I need them. I didn't feel my brain was cluttered, because I remembered tasks at the right time and right place[ I never thought about grocery list during working hours and vice versa].

I don't know it there is any well known research behind this "write things down to unclutter your brain"-thing, or it all boils down to poor memory or lack of commitment to remember something important ?

Side question, but related : is it even possible to quickly forget the task and leave it written on the piece of paper ?

I just want to know if this thing really works or it just sells similar books for time management.

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    $\begingroup$ IIRC there is at least some memory research suggesting that if you write a list and then can't access it at testing time, your recall of the list drops markedly compared to when no list was written. I'll see if I can find it. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2015 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ I've found that writing to-do lists is only helpful if your list (or list-making platform) is consistent. In other words, don't write one to-do list on a scrap piece of paper, and then another list in a journal. In terms of actually committing to the activities on the to-do list, I think that scheduling your activities is more efficient than simply listing items. I like to schedule an hour or two a day for 'little things' that pile up, and then a few longer chunks for bigger projects that I am working on. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2015 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. So,I need to ask you, do you feel like your brain have uncluttered when you wrote down your todo list or do you feel the same ? Lets say,today, do you , without looking into pad, remember which tasks you assigned for today, can you recall them? $\endgroup$ May 5, 2015 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ I think that writing things down (with intention, i.e. not absentmindedly) is usually helpful, if only in the sense that it gives you some sort of visual stimuli with which you can associate the task you have written down. If I assign myself tasks for the day, I am more likely to remember those tasks because I have considered and reallocated their worth. In general, I wonder if an ability to recall tasks is linked to one's sense of urgency... I more clearly remember smaller yet stressful tasks, for example. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2015 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ Personal experience: Before I used a consistent ToDo-List, I often lay awake at night for hours while my mind constantly worried, tried to remember all the things I need to do during the week and check which of these issues were already done. Since I'm using ToDo-Lists, I can fall asleep easier, knowing that there's less danger of me forgetting an important task. This also answers your side question: For me it is definitely possible to quickly forget tasks and leave them written in my ToDo-List. $\endgroup$
    – Jay P.
    May 6, 2015 at 8:31

1 Answer 1


There is some research that suggests writing a to-do list will help "unclutter your brain." The research is related to the phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect.

The basic observation behind the Zeigarnik effect is that we tend to think more about tasks and goals that are incomplete. This leads to, among other things, increased priming for concepts related to a unfinished goal relative to a finished one (Förster, Liberman, & Higgins, 2005).

Masicampo & Baumeister (2011) investigated whether making a plan to finish a goal, as opposed to actually finishing the goal, could lead to a similar reduction in intrusive thoughts about the goal. They report:

In several studies, we activated unfulfilled goals and demonstrated persistent goal activation over time. Unfinished goals caused intrusive thoughts during an unrelated reading task (Studies 1 and 5B), high mental accessibility of goal-related words (Studies 2 and 3), and poor performance on an unrelated anagram task (Study 4). Allowing participants to formulate specific plans for their unfulfilled goals eliminated the various activation and interference effects. Reduction of the effects was mediated by the earnestness of participants’ plans: Those who ultimately executed their plans were those who also exhibited no more intrusions (Study 4). Moreover, changes in goal-related emotions did not appear to be a necessary component of the observed cognitive effects (Studies 5A and 5B). Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended—allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease—and is resumed at the specified later time.

In sum, there seems to be some evidence that uncompleted tasks do lead to intrusive thoughts, and that finishing the tasks reduces intrusive thoughts. Alternatively, making and committing to a plan to finish the tasks can reduce the instrusive thoughts even in the absence of finishing the task.


Förster, J., Liberman, N., & Higgins, E. T. (2005). Accessibility from active and fulfilled goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 220-239.

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 667.


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