Playing Catch Up & The Psychology Behind Our “To-Dos.”

As a teacher it seems as if it is hard to ever feel completely caught up; when one assignment comes off the to grade list another finds its way on. Not to mention the constant creation and planning of lessons on lessons. For a person who likes to be ahead of the game, this can be daunting. I am that person. However, over the last year of teaching (2 if you count my student observation year) it has become evident that it is important to find a balance; one where you do not feel guilty for having things still left on the list. Because if we’re getting technical here, isn’t there always something left on the list? Even if it’s not physically written.

Last week I found my to do list busting at the seams because the week prior I unfortunately had been admitted into the hospital, having me out of the classroom for 4 days. Anxiety-ridden is an understatement. I felt bogged down and like I wouldn’t see the end, not to mention I was then planning day-by-day (which is one of my biggest no-nos) causing even more internal stress. While yes I know we are human and life happens in ways we cannot control, my students are the reason I get out of bed everyday and when I feel behind I feel as if I am letting them down.

Yesterday was the first day since being out of the hospital that I could deem as a full “catch up” day. I did not have to go to school, I did not have to go to my second job, I did not have any commitments. It has been a while since I had a day like this and boy did I forget how amazing they are and how they leave you feeling. I woke up and went to church, came home turned on football (thank you for the game in London meaning there was a game before 12!) and opened my computer.

I was able to knock things off my work to do list as well as my personal to do list. Come 8:30pm last night I not only had the 3 out of 4 classes I can pre-plan planned for the whole week, but I had every assignment that was outstanding graded. Oh! And I got all the laundry and dishes done plus some cleaning. For the first time in 2 weeks my mind felt a little more at peace. Looking at a list that was “clear,” even knowing first thing the next morning it no longer would be, felt like a major accomplishment.

As I closed up shop and started to wind the night down this accomplished feeling I was having got me thinking. Why does crossing things off a to do list and or having a somewhat short/clear to do list play such an important role to lift weight off our shoulders? My wondering then led me to doing some bedtime reading and researching, assuming there had to be professional thoughts and opinions on this.

The first article I found was from The Guardian. This talked about how studies have shown that people perform better when they write things down. Does this resonate with you? I know it does me. I make lists on lists on lists. A psychologist, Dr. Cohen, was quoted giving 3 major reasons why we love to do lists, “… they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.” Another worthy mention in this article was a study done at Wake Forest University which showed that while tasks we have not done yet distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from some of this anxiety. Lastly, this article mentioned how important it is to be realistic in your timing and what it is that you can accomplish. It suggested that you break down your larger tasks into smaller more achievable tasks. This does two things; 1- lets the task seem less intimidating (lets be honest we all pass up the bigger things on our lists until they are they only left) 2- allows you to cross more off more frequently having you feel like you are making progress faster.

Another interesting article I found was from FacileThings which continues on with the last thought from above, breaking tasks into “micro-tasks”, but first starts out explaining why we get satisfaction from crossing things off the list (jackpot of what I was looking for). It states that when our brain recognizes that we have checked off/completed a task it releases the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure and is responsible for generating feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness. At times this release works towards our benefit in 2 ways; not only does it make us feel good with a sense/feeling of accomplishment, but it also can motivate you to continue completing tasks and extend that pleasant feeling. This article is quick to explain further however that this release alone does not help or force you to become more productive, you have to keep on completing tasks. This is where they bring up the idea of micro-tasks, “small movements of work, lasting on the order of several minutes, that lead you to complete the task.” It speaks to how we tend to work from smallest task to largest task, but that at times when we are only crossing off quick “one-offs” we can still be left feeling incompetent. Yet if we break larger tasks down we can deceive our brains to not try to avoid them, getting even more accomplished.

To-do lists vary on form and person, but there are many benefits to them. I am one who utilizes both electronic and handwritten lists, it depends on the tasks at hand. In my opinion they both have their pros and cons. I enjoy digital because it is always attached to me and it is easily edited/arranged, but there is something utterly satisfying about a handwritten list and physically using a writing utensil to cross it off.

What types of to to do lists do you prefer?

No matter what list you might be working on, it is important to create an environment that is conducive for you to do your best work. Again this varies for me based on the day and the items I am completing. Some days I prefer to be in my classroom, others I like to be at home and even sometimes a restaurant or cafe. Some days I prefer to work alone with music playing, others I can have the TV running and people around. Yesterday what worked for me was my couch, football and a glass or two of wine with a couple breaks built in!

What does a catch up day look like to you?

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