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Digital To-Do Lists Are Fine, But What Really Motivates Us?

The culture of using alarms, reminders and digital  to-do lists seems bigger than ever. But the method might not be what's keeping us from doing things.
The culture of using alarms, reminders and digital to-do lists seems bigger than ever. But the method might not be what's keeping us from doing things.

I have two alarms: one, on weekdays, that tells me The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is set to start in 20 minutes; the other, seven days a week, that encourages me to free-write.

Every night I dash to my room to silence the iPhone tune that many a roommate has grown to loathe, mindlessly ignoring attempts to remind myself to do the things I love and care about.

And every night as I swipe right, I wonder: Are these things as important to me as they were when I set the alarms six months ago?

We live in a culture where we constantly use alarms, reminders and digital to-do lists. We sport wearables to encourage us to stay active and eat healthy, and download phone apps that nudge us to call grandma, clean our room and get our co-worker a birthday card.

The apps come in a variety of flavors: There's Timeful, which learns your schedule, your habits and your needs and urges you to do what it thinks you want to get done. And Sunrise Calendar, which is essentially a Microsoft Outlook-style calendar that syncs with most of your devices. Or even TeuxDeux, a simple, online, minimal and "designy" to-do list.

But is that the key, to simply be reminded? Are there others out there who, like me, snooze things away each and every day? Maybe, maybe not.

David Allen says all of the organizational apps out there are really just list monitors. What you need to do is list, or "map," what it is you need to get done, and do it, he says.

"Your mind is for having ideas, not holding on to them," he says.

Allen coined the term "GTD" aka "getting things done," and it's a program that prides itself on its five steps to "order chaos."

And those steps are: Capture, and collect what has your attention; Clarify, and process what that means; Organize, and put it where it belongs; Reflect, and review frequently; and Engage — do it.

Allen is a longtime martial artist, and when he worked in consulting, he was attracted to — and intrigued by — the power of clear space. He wanted to develop a model that would work for everyone, he says.

"We're not born doing it," he says. "It doesn't happen as a natural or automatic process. Your head is the worst place in the world for trying to hold stuff."

Allen says the effectiveness of alarm reminders depends on whether a task is imperative vs. motivational, and on your level of dedication.

"I think those [alarms] only work if there's a dire consequence of not doing what the behavior is," he says. "If it's yoga at 4 a.m. — good luck."

Rey Junco agrees. He sees technologies as a tool, and says these technologies are not going to drive someone to be motivated.

"The motivation has to come from you," he says. "I don't think an app is going to make a difference."

Junco is an associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

He says he started making lists with paper and pencil; for a few years, he even had a notepad insert in his wallet. Now, Junco uses the GTD method, and has combined it with apps like OmniFocus and Doit.im. He says he needs something that's always with him, and tools that are easily accessible through his mobile phone and his computer.

"I think, like a diet, it takes a lot of work," Junco says. "If a diet was just, like, showing up in the kitchen and eating — awesome! I think it would have such a higher compliance rate."

He adds that planning is a way of "changing your lifestyle in a way that's uncomfortable."

"Planning time is paradoxical in that it seems like it's taking away time from actual work," Junco says, "but it actually makes your actual work more productive."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allie Caren
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