Want To Get Things Done? Write It Down

If you are looking for to do list software, you have a myriad of options to choose from. Some of the most well regarded to do list managers floating around the Internet are Remember the Milk, Toodledo, Google Calendar’s Task list, and Ta-Da List. Each of them seems to have a gadget that you can integrate into your web browser or into an iGoogle page so that you can see your to do list at regular intervals as you work at your computer.

If it’s so convenient, why can’t I recommend some such system?

I love technology and gadgets. But digitizing this particular function — I just don’t have the heart for it. Personally, I find that I need to write my to do lists. I enjoy the feeling of physically crossing things off my list on a piece of paper. I’ve experimented with different kinds of to do lists. There’s the simple master list that holds everything. There’s the approach of making different lists for each day of the week and categorizing tasks according to when they must be done. Most recently, I’ve experimented with the GTD (Getting Things Done) system of using context-based lists, such as @phone, @email, @ car, @home, @travel, etc. Even that system is customized based on the assumption that everyone will want to digitize their lists — hence the @ symbol, which is partially intended to pull the to do list to the top of an electronic folder that is organized alphabetically.

But I don’t put my context lists on my computer, my phone, or my iPad. I write them on sheets of paper and file them in a three-ring binder. Why?

It just is so much more effective for me to write things down on a physical list. I didn’t know why, so I looked it up. It turns out that the act of physically writing causes chemical changes in the brain — my brain, your brain, anyone’s brain. Here’s why:

1. Storing memories in more than one way helps us to remember. When I write something down on my to do list, I store it, in a sense, in two ways — visually and kinesthetically, by using the muscles in my arm, hand, and fingers to write. If I read the list out loud to myself, I’ve now stored in it in two more ways, by speaking and listening. I am now far less likely to forget the items on my list. If I store the list in my computer, even if I then migrate it to my phone, I still am storing it in just one way, as letters on a screen — eminently forgettable.

2. Reading and writing rewires our brains. Neurologists are beginning to realize that adult brains are far more plastic, and more similar to the brains of children, than we commonly assume. Far from being set in stone, our brains are changing and evolving all the time, as we, like our children, learn new things. Studies of what happens in children’s brains, as they read and write, may well apply to us adults as well, and to what happens in our brains when we read and write.

Neurologists are just beginning to use brain imaging studies to find out what happens in a child’s brain during the process of becoming literate. It turns out that the quality of the brain’s white matter — the tissue that carries signals between areas of gray matter — improves substantially when children learn to read — a process that typically occurs side by side with learning to write. (See, for example, ìFirst evidence of brain rewiring in children: reading remediation positively alters brain tissue,î Science Daily, Dec. 10, 2009,

When children learn to write in cursive, other things happen in the brain. The translation of the sequences of symbols (letters) into lines on paper affects the cognitive ability of the brain — it presents the brain with a challenge because each letter connects slightly different to every other letter each time that it is written. Neuroscientists say that as children learn to write cursive, they become better speakers and readers. Writing in cursive, but not printing, does this — so maybe it’s best to write that to do list in cursive. I certainly do!

But it’s not just the act of writing that affects the brain. Reading cursive handwriting — our own or anyone else’s — uses the same part of the brain that recognizes faces — and we can have an emotional response to handwriting, just as we can to a face. Looking at handwriting activates in the brain a process called a ‘memory trace’ a biochemical change that causes a domino effect (if you’ll forgive my mixing of metaphors) throughout the rest of the brain, setting off other memories. That means that simply seeing an item that I wrote on a to do list can trigger a whole chain reaction of other memories related to that item and what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it. No wonder a physical handwritten to do list seems so much more meaningful to me! I just can’t get the same satisfaction from clicking a box on a computer screen.

Perhaps my final reason for preferring writing on paper is frivolous, but here goes:

3. Writing with a good pen on good paper is physically pleasurable — it adds a moment of pure enjoyment to a day that may be filled with otherwise mundane tasks. As Toronto reporter Andrea Gordon puts it, ‘I luxuriate in feeling the pen on paper the way a cook relishes sticky dough on his fingers.’ (Gordon, Andrea. ‘The death of handwriting’ Parentcentral.ca. Dec. 10, 2009.

Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a Maryland self storage locator. Art leads a busy life and often travels between sites, like from Texas to the Florida self storage site. As a result, Art has developed a strong interest in topics such as productivity, organization, working while traveling, balancing work and home life, and reducing stress.

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