Shame Yourself Into Productivity With a Public To-do List

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Photo: Stellalevi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As of this writing, my to-do list is scrawled on the back of a Duane Reade receipt, made up of vague, barely intelligible items like “buy book” and “phone call tomorrow.” For a document that’s supposed to keep me organized, I’m sorry to say, it is a masterpiece of disorganization.

If I thought anyone else would ever read it, though, I’d probably put some effort into making it a little more coherent. And a post on Lifehacker yesterday made the case that I probably should — public to-do lists, it argued, are a relatively simple way to force yourself into productivity.

The post highlighted a recent entry from the blog of computer scientist Joe Reddington, who, when he decided to share his task list online, was forced to look at it with fresh, more critical eyes. “When it was a list for me, it looked great,” he wrote. But “when I decided to make it public, it instantly looked very poor” — he noticed repeats, items that didn’t make sense, “tasks that had gradually changed meaning in my head.”

As he revised, Reddington discovered that he wasn’t just creating a more presentable document; it was now more helpful, too. “To write out a task properly, you first have to think properly about the task,” he explained, which helped him to make each one more detailed and concrete. “Suddenly each of these took less thinking when I cast my eye down the list,” he wrote. “When I started making my list fit for public view, there were about 95 action points on it. After about an hour of work there are 40, and they are all much easier.”

But it’s not just the content of a public list that makes it useful — research has shown that looping someone else in on your plans, no matter how you share them, keeps you more accountable. One 2015 study found that people are more likely to achieve their goals if they kept a friend updated on how they were faring. And a review published earlier this year in Psychological Bulletin analyzed 138 different studies on productivity and concluded that overall, people accomplished more of what they set out to do when others could track their progress.

A caveat: A 2009 study on “identity goals” — based on who you want to become, rather than things you want to do — found that making them public may actually diminish your drive to follow through. Confiding to someone that you want to be a better friend, for instance, can feel like a step in and of itself, making you less motivated to actually schedule that catch-up call you’ve been putting off. “When other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity,” the study authors wrote. For regular day-to-day tasks, though, it couldn’t hurt to try a team Google doc, or this app, or even a good old-fashioned Post-it wall — anything that other people can see.