The soul-searching benefits of a mere ‘to-do’ list

Rosemary Gattuso

Rosemary Gattuso

Rosemary Gattuso has been in alternative dispute resolution practice in Sydney for more than fifteen years, specialising in family mediation and restorative justice. As a family mediator, she has helped many families to separate in a child-focused way. In addition to her dispute resolution work, Rosemary runs programs for schools, parents, individuals, and businesses about...
Updated on Jun 21, 2024 · 4 mins read
The soul-searching benefits of a mere ‘to-do’ list

We all have that friend, sister, mum or husband who’s ‘the organiser’ right? The ones that plan events, with seemingly ‘ease,’ and then rock up looking a million bucks!


They’re the first to remember birthdays and then remind the group with a big fat ‘Happy Birthday, gorgeous!’ text message, while we shrink in shame at having forgotten, again.

Their presents are always awesome because, well, they’ve thought about it, long and hard.

Their kids never turn up to school without the correct uniform, money for the cupcake stall…or that form signed for the netball team.

Their holidays are perfectly executed Instagram-worthy adventures.

Need I go on?

Basically, they appear to glide through life and make those of us who’re not so, shall we say, ‘prepared’, feel even more inadequate.

So, why are they so super organised? What’s their secret weapon?

Well, I can tell you right now, without a shred of doubt, they will have a good, old-fashioned ‘to-do’ list!

To-do lists are massively underrated


Lists have been around since, well, the beginning of time. Philosopher Umberto Eco says that “Lists are often seen as relics of primitive cultures—simplistic devices that don’t belong in our modern day and age.” However, the simple form of the list prevails again and again over time, because, as Umberto says, it has “an irresistible magic.”

Groceries? Check! Party food? Check! Work duties? Check! Eye test? Check! Finding out the time difference between Ghana and Portugal? Check!

Whether it’s handwritten in a notebook, typed on your phone, or in a meticulously created spreadsheet, it’s a list…and those who make them most likely tick off every night with glee.

As a Sydney Family Mediator and Counsellor, I too believe there is much wisdom in this age-old time management practice.

When we feel overwhelmed, our concentration becomes even more challenging. We sense the heavy load but feel powerless as precious time seems to slip through our fingers. We find ourselves forgetting dates and important appointments and yes, kid’s cupcake stalls!

The aftermath? Disappointment – perhaps mingled with apprehension about all the damn tasks that are still unfinished. Yet, our friends, the ones with the lists, are sitting back, with a feeling of sublime smugness and accomplishment as they tick off that chore. Productivity at its best.

So, here’s my theory on why making a ‘to-do list’ is the answer to lifelong organisation.


More than just a list


The act of ticking off tasks on a to-do list isn’t merely about completing items; it’s about cultivating a positive self-image. Ticking off tasks makes us feel good about ourselves.

Multiple studies have shown that getting work done and checking items off a to-do list stimulate the hypothalamus to release dopamine, which makes you feel good.

And when we feel good about ourselves, it moulds our view of ourselves – creating self-awareness.

Our sense of self is made up of two components.

  1. Our internal dialogue and interactions with ourselves.
  2. Our interactions with others.

It’s really the quality of these interactions —what we think, believe, feel, do and say— that determines whether we enhance or diminish our sense of self. Generally, the quality of our interactions can either highlight our strengths or weaknesses.

You get the picture – interactions with ourselves that highlight our strengths build on our sense of self and self-perception. The same can be said for the opposite, with those that focus on our weaknesses – our perceived faults and shortcomings – they take away from our sense of self, leaving us with a slightly deflated view of ourselves. And who needs that?

The act of ticking off tasks on a to-do list isn’t merely about completing items; it’s about cultivating a positive self-image.

In other words, the quality of our sense of self influences how much we believe in ourselves.

A realistic and healthy to-do list will contribute to that sense of accomplishment, in turn highlighting our achievements no matter how big or small. (Let me tell you, getting the Easter Hat made on time is a BIG accomplishment.)

You might be thinking, ‘Lady, I just want to be organised’… but to increase our overall happiness, it’s crucial that we are able to believe in ourselves.


Wrapping it up


It doesn’t matter what your ‘to-do list’ looks like. Whether it’s an app, a messy notes page, or sticky notes that you plaster around the house – if it works, it works! It’s important to find our own version of a to-do list and make it a regular practice. Find the format that’s easy and accessible for you to bump up the likelihood of you using it. The easier, the better.

Not only will a to-do list build on the way we view ourselves, we’ll also be better equipped to navigate adversity, be more resilient and empowered…and way less overwhelmed.

That’s a big ‘hell yes’ from me!

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