Is Your To-Do List Corrupting Your Mind?

Autopilot“To attain the lofty heights of our society, one must possess nearly-psychotic focus. This focus comes at the cognitive expense of being able to see novel relationships among unrelated concepts.”

—Andrew Smart, Autopilot

We’ve been imbued with a notion that if we’re not doing something, and doing it in the most efficient way possible, we’re failing.

Anyone that doesn’t work full-time is often considered lazy—that is akin to saying that anyone not spending upwards of 40 hours a week exerting effort is indolent.

Sometimes, despicably, people brag about getting less sleep because they were busy.

“Our long-standing “idlephobia” has lead inexorably to our current near-obsession with busyness.”

—Andrew Smart, Autopilot

The brain does not like effort. It hurts. So, it will do everything it can to make sure we’re using as little energy as possible—it will turn tasks such as driving and riding a bike into habits requiring little thought; and it will send us intuitive answers using heuristics and biases so that we need not think.

This point is one that Daniel Kahneman lucidly explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow:

Thinking Fast and Slow“A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into out nature.”

How does a lazy brain cope with a productivity-ridden society? In short, it struggles.

People today have an insurmountable number of tasks on their plate. Compare that to a few thousand years ago, when the brain that occupies your skull evolved to deal with the landscape of that time.

Daniel Levitin“In a real biological sense, we have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle.”

—Daniel Levitin, Organized Mind

More people are turning to meditation and mindfulness, to stress-reduction techniques, to drugs and alcohol. There’s also a higher instance of suicide and mental ills such as anxiety and depression.

The reason for many of these, I believe, is that we’re trying to redline a brain that evolved to do things with as little effort as possible.

People are no longer utilizing one of the most precious aspects of our mental wellbeing—the reflective, contemplative, thought-provoking act of day dreaming.

As I point out in Connecting the Dots:

Connecting the Dots“Today we’re more often consuming as opposed to thinking and conceptualizing. We are more interested in keeping our eyes glued to screens—watching, reading, listening—never taking the time to stop, think, reflect, or consider alternatives. Attention and focused effort are essential to learning, but we must know where to direct them.”

This isn’t to say people don’t mind wander (I use mind wander and day dream interchangeably). In fact, now it’s being called a problem that, unsurprisingly, interferes with our productivity. God forbid.

Instead, the type of mind wandering that now occupies our minds is corrupted, broken, tainted by the workload hoisted upon us.

On The List

Consider your standard to do list. Think about the effect that has on your mind—it’s filling it with an endless supply of unfinished tasks, a constant reminder that you need to do more.

Jamie Holmes mentions in his book Nonsense:

Nonsense“Our need to conquer the unresolved … is essential to our ability to function in the world. But like any mental trait, this need can be exaggerated in some people and heightened in certain circumstances.”

I doubt many people ever see the end of that list, instead it is constantly updated and refilled, each task replaced by another.

This is not to condemn the list, however. It has made things unquestionably easier.

Externalizing tasks by using an app or paper takes a great deal of strain off our memory systems. It can also, when ordered correctly, help us focus on what’s most important, and not get overwhelmed.

Despite this, there may be one substantial negative.

Those who note the annoying or distracting aspects of mind wandering are often plagued by thoughts of their unfinished tasks.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in his 2013 paper Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming, points out:

“People’s daydreams and night dreams reflect “current concerns” ranging from incomplete tasks to unresolved desires, from sexual and social strivings to altruistic or revenge urges and the panoply of human motivations.”

Mind wandering is far from a distraction. We spend up to half our waking lives daydreaming, and it is not for nothing.

In The Clouds

For starters, it is clear that mind wandering relates to our future goals. It reminds us of unfinished tasks, but we also tend to envision our future, however distant. It has been speculated that mind wandering is therefore essential to meaningful future planning, that our goals for our lives are in part seized upon thanks to mind wandering.

We also often toil with thoughts of current problems, yet in a way that seems undirected and disorganized. If you stop what you’re doing so you can wash the dishes or go for a walk, your mind fills with odd thoughts that seem hardly related—but they are.

It’s long been noted that many creative insights make use of an incubation period—a time defined by little focus on a problem, of letting the unconscious mind take over.

Those random thoughts occurring as you daydream are the same type of thoughts that lead to creative insights. Your mind is seeking out connections and associations between remote memories.

“Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting these mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts.”

—Andrew Smart, Autopilot

This is not simply for creativity purposes, rather, it is what the brain does to remember something.

Mind wandering is important in the consolidation of memories—much like sleep. Memory is built upon association, like a spider’s web—the more a memory is connected, the better able you are to remember it.

Mind wandering is the soil from which ideas spring and memories strengthen. But as we’ve noted, the thoughts that swim around your head are very often related to your current goals and desires.

So, if your current goals and desires are all work related, stress-invoking, and attention-oriented, then that is what your wandering mind will have to work with.

If you cannot escape your to-do list, it will consume you.

The Great Escape

We need to take a break. But how? If we consider taking a break to be relaxing for a few hours, then taking a break implies some form of daydreaming, which is now a problem given what we’ve filled it with.

Nor can we simply not have a to do list. We all have things to do and using a list to externalize and order these tasks is necessary.

Instead, we need to let our to-do list expire. To run out. We have to see it empty, and feel the sense of closure that comes from having nothing to do.

The more often we can clean the slate, the greater sense of achievement we’ll feel, and the more comfortable we’ll become with at times having nothing to do.

We must free our mind of productivity and current demands if we’re going to be able to see the big picture, to contemplate our life and the direction we want to go.

This requires unshackling the unconscious mind as well as the conscious. You want to be able to let yourself go without fear of work-related thoughts resurfacing.

Your to do list needs an end point.

Check out more on how we remember and why productivity is not always best in Connecting the Dots

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