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Happiness Tip: Make a Plan

One of the things that can detract from our happiness is a lingering to-do item.

I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve woken up at 5:00 am worrying about an unfinished project, an email I forgot to send, an appointment I didn’t have a chance to make, or something I meant to do, but didn’t.

Researchers used to think that this low-level worrying about unfinished tasks was our unconscious mind trying to help us get things done by reminding us of what we still needed to do, and that the reminders — or distracting thoughts and worries — would persist until the task was complete. This in itself is a worrying theory for those of us who have never-ending task lists.

But now research shows that simply making a plan to deal with an unfinished task makes a huge difference in our ability to focus on other things — without being constantly reminded by our unconscious mind about what else we need bigstock-vector-flat-design-style-illus-59393429-300x225to do. When we don’t have a plan, in contrast, our thoughts will typically wander from whatever it is we are doing to our undone tasks. As it turns out, our unconscious isn’t nagging us to do the task at hand, but rather to make a plan to get it done.

Take Action: Before you leave work or hit the hay this evening, take a look at your task list and make a plan for completing unfinished tasks. Knowing what the next step is for undone items, and when you will do them, can make you a whole lot happier.

Join the Discussion: What task do you often worry about when you haven’t completed it? Does it help you to make a plan? Comment below.


  1. Cleatus Lopez says:

    “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now” 

  2. Karen says:

    I’ve found that sometimes the simplest approach is the best.  When I leave work, I put a sticky note on my desk, with the two or three things I should do first the next morning when I arrive.  Amazingly, that does the trick for most things.  Cuts way down on the midnight worrying, and on the lack of focus the next morning.

  3. I’m not a great one for planning, but I think your suggestion to write a task list is a good one – whenever I do it I really find it does help me focus and also there’s a sense of achievement in working through it, as long as I get there!

  4. Frog and Toad says:

    The best tip I received recently was to set my e-mail program at work to open up to the Calendar, not to the E-mail Inbox.  This way, the first thing I see at my desk is my list of critical daily meetings.  I don’t get distracted by the Inbox the moment I sit at my desk.

  5. Keeping ‘trusted systems’ such as to-do lists with (never-ending) tasks has helped me tremendously clear my unconscious mind, lower stress and be able to focus on what’s important.  A book on how to develop such systems that I think is excellent is ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen.  Another great one that touches on the subject from a neuroscience standpoint is ‘Your Brain at Work’ by David Rock.

  6. Eric T says:

    Great timing and so right on with this post. I’m generally overloaded with daily tasks and when one (or more) gets missed or postponed (as regularly happens), it all piles up. The result is stress, lack of sleep, etc. I’m living it. However, when I do a review before bed, and map out the coming day, somehow it takes the edge off. The urgency is still there, but not the wild stress. Last night I tried it – using a great task/project tracking site called Teamly (www.teamly.com). It has you pick a maximum of five ‘priorities’ for any given day, week, month, quarter, etc. Works wonders. This morning, I was rested and happier. I even looked back through my email for your email from yesterday so I could comment and say thanks for the post.

    – Eric

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