Obsessed with ticking items off your to-do list? Here’s the psychology behind why

Addicted to ticking things off your to-do list? It could have something to do with a phenomenon known as completion bias.

Whether you’ve got multiple lists on the go, like to start a new one every day or put one together when you’re feeling overwhelmed, we’re all familiar with the humble to-do list.

There’s a reason why it’s remained such a popular productivity tool, despite the number of apps that are available to download these days. Whether you’re trying to stay on top of household chores, work responsibilities or general life admin, there’s something satisfying about the act of writing something down and ticking it off at the end of the day.

However, to-do lists aren’t all good news. At a time when the pressure to be productive and ‘on the go’ 24/7 can be all-consuming, the need to be busy and tick things off can lead to feelings of burnout. 

And while to-do lists aren’t the only factor at play here, they play into a psychological phenomenon that fuels that urge to be busy: completion bias.  

A psychological term used to describe our natural tendency to want to tick things off and complete tasks, completion bias is an innate and deeply ingrained phenomenon.

Indeed, as researcher Eva Krockow writes in Psychology Today: “The importance of getting things done is deeply engrained in most people’s mindsets… Indeed, it appears that the bias is rooted in neurobiological mechanisms of the brain, with the experience of task completion leading to a release of the pleasurable chemical dopamine.” 

While completion bias can serve as a useful motivator – after all, it literally drives us to get things done – it can also cause problems.

This is because, as the name might suggest, completion bias is less about the doing of the task and more about the completion of it – a fact which can drive us to cut corners or avoid big tasks in favour of completing the tiniest bits on our to-do lists.  

There’s a reason why ticking things off your to-do list feels so satisfying.

In this way, completion bias can drive you to procrastinate on important, weighty tasks simply because you want to tick off simple things such as putting a wash on or making the bed.

If you’ve ever added tasks you’ve already completed to the bottom of your to-do list simply so you could tick them off, you’ll know what we’re talking about – while the satisfaction of getting things done can help us to keep going, it can also make us lose perspective.

So, how can we navigate the tricky world of completion bias? According to Krockow, the answer lies in knowing how to manage it.

“One way to harness the bias is to learn from the results of behavioural studies and structure your to-do lists more efficiently,” she explains. “Research on task selection in office environments suggests that scheduling a few easy tasks for the beginning of the working day may help to boost motivation for bigger tasks to follow.” 

If you’re struggling to make a start on your bigger tasks, Krockow suggests using completion bias to your advantage by breaking them up into smaller, bitesize to-dos.

“As a result, you’d be able to tick off individual task components throughout your journey towards the larger goal,” she says. “This is likely to leave you feeling more accomplished and motivated at every step of the challenge.”

While it’s easy to get sucked in by the satisfaction of getting things done, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. The process of getting things done can be just as enjoyable as the final result – you just need to give yourself the space and focus you need to get going.

Images: Getty

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