Science Says Add Just 1 Element to Your To-Do List to ‘Remarkably’ Improve Your Success Rate

Just about every to-do list includes at least one of “those” entries: A task you really want or need to bang out and cross off your list, but can’t stand the thought of actually starting. Much less doing.

It looks too hard. Or boring. Or intimidating. 

So it sits there. Staring back at you. Occasionally giving you the Doc Holliday wink

In 2017, a study commissioned by the National Science Foundation reviewed more than 61 research experiments designed to examine ways to improve educational attainment.

Three factors made the biggest difference in student success, both over the short and long term: A sense of belonging, embracing a growth mindset (here’s a primer on the difference between that and a fixed mindset), and embracing personal goals and values the students felt were directly linked to their educational pursuits.

Makes sense. It’s hard to stay the course when you don’t feel like you belong. It’s hard to stay the course when you don’t feel intelligence, ability, or skill can be developed through effort.

And it’s really hard to stay the course when you can’t see how what you’re doing — especially when what you’re doing is difficult — will get you to where you want to go.

So you probably do at least two of those things without thinking. Goals naturally make us feel like a part of a group: Entrepreneurs, leaders, creators, people trying to get fit or lose weight. Most goals have relevance; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be on your list. 

But then there’s this. According to the researchers, a “remarkable” finding involved a brief writing exercise. Some students were required to write about the relevance of course topics to their own life, or to the life of a family member or close friend — in short, to actually write down their “why?”

Those who did not only improved significantly in that class, their success rate improved over several subsequent semesters. As a bonus, the writing exercise showed the largest benefits for student groups at greatest risk for academic failure.

In short, the harder the task — or the less likely you are to think you can achieve it, and therefore are more likely to quit — the more taking a few seconds to actually write down your “why?” will matter.

Try it. Write down a “why?” for the items on your to-do list that seem hard, or boring, or intimidating. Write down why it matters. Write down how you — or someone around you — will benefit. Write down what you’ll learn, what you’ll gain… write down the what and the why.

Turn your to-do list into a why to-do list.

And then do the same for some of your bigger goals — especially those personal goals whose pursuit tends to get sacrificed in the service of others. (I feel sure you’re better at doing things for others than for yourself.) 

Write down why you want to lose weight. Or get fitter. Or go back to school. Or gain a new skill. Or start a side hustle or business.

Don’t just write down a goal or task. Write down their relevance to your life.

And, by extension, to the lives of others — since your growth almost always benefits the people around you.

Even though it will only take a moment, the impact on your success rate will be huge.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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