Why a to-do-list should not be written vertically?

Think of the last to-do list you wrote and we’ll tell you what it looked like. Did it have bullet points? Was it numbered? Maybe you even had your highest-priority items written at the top. However you arranged it, we’d place our bet on the fact that your most recent to-do list was written vertically. Maybe don’t do that.

Writing things down — whether it be your grocery list, your workday priorities, or your next doctor’s appointment — is key in actually remembering those things later. Surely you know this. According to psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, writing things down by hand not only improves your memory, but it can also improve reading comprehension, language skills, information retention, hand-eye coordination, and critical thinking skills, especially in the young.

How you write the things down is a whole different thing, and it’s likely not something you’ve considered much before. But it’s certainly not a new thought: Consider the “round robin” petition. It refers to a document that’s signed in a circle, eliminating any hierarchy. First documented in 17th-century France, this format allowed government officials signing a petition to disguise the identity of the ringleader of the movement.

The 2013 rise of the bullet journal is a prime example of how the way you write your notes, lists, and reminders can impact their effectiveness. All too often writing a vertical list makes the top items seem most important, when that may not be the case. According to Ben Schott for Real Simple and Lifehacker, subscribing to a top-down list-writing strategy is sabotaging your to-dos. (Schott is the author of “Schott’s Original Miscellany,” a noted compilation of lists.)

If you love your vertical lists and they seem to be working for you, that’s great (they’re an essential part of the Ivy Lee method, after all). But hear Schott out on why it may not be the best way to chronicle your to-dos. He reasons that human thought doesn’t necessarily — if ever? — occur in a neat, tidy, ordered sequence. Instead, you may think of one thing you have to do that then reminds you of another thing you have to do, while at the same time you consider other completely unrelated tasks you also ought to get to.

Schott suggests grouping tasks together instead of listing them all out line by line. Vertical lists almost always start at the upper left corner of a piece of paper, but you can group tasks together by starting at the center of the page and jotting them down in spatial relation to each other. That way, all of your chores will sit within one themed cloud of to-dos that don’t bleed over into your errand-running items.

Different formats may work better depending on which kind of list you’re compiling. For example, Schott mentions trying a Venn diagram if you’re working on a party invite list. With this format, you can anticipate how people will interact and adjust your list accordingly. A vertical list may not be able to reveal the fact that you invited 30 of your college friends to your shindig but only one old friend from your hometown until it’s too late.

Check out my related post: Do you procrastinate?

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