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The Brain-Healthy Reason You Should Make Checklists, From Neurologists

Image by Alina Hvostikova / Stocksy
March 18, 2021

How do you keep track of your to-do's? Do you have a calendar, a collage of sticky notes, or do you simply scrawl down a list? 

No matter your planning preferences (be it on a digital notes app or with a pen and paper), neurologists Dean Sherzai, M.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., say it's worth keeping track of your daily tasks. Apparently, they explain on the mindbodygreen podcast, checklists earn an A+ for brain health. 

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Why checklists are great for brain health. 

Technically, it's not the actual list-making that's so stellar for brain health—it's isolating your tasks, from beginning to end, and physically (or mentally) checking them off. You see, the Sherzais are not huge fans of multitasking: "We say there's no such thing as multitasking; it's doing multiple things badly," says Dean. Attention and cognitive decline are deeply intertwined (your attention naturally depletes as you age), and when you multitask, your attention becomes further compromised, which creates a perfect storm for cognitive decline. 

Research has also found unfinished goals can cause intrusive thoughts during unrelated tasks—when participants were unable to finish a warm-up activity, they performed worse on an unrelated brainstorming task. Meaning, if you leave a task unfinished, it may continue to swirl in your mind and actually affect the quality of your other work.

That's why, says Dean, it's important to "break each activity into their own silos and [perform] each act from beginning to end." One way to keep your individual tasks accountable? A handy checklist. 

Plus, Dean notes, crossing off a task once it's done provides an incredible dopamine surge for your brain. When you accomplish a goal—no matter how small—your brain rewards you with a pleasurable hit of dopamine; in other words, there's a reason a tiny checkmark on your to-do lists gives you so much satisfaction. "Your joy, your sense of happiness over time, even your depression scale1—all of that's going to be affected by those check-offs," says Dean. 

And to bring it full-circle: Some research has also found a correlation between healthy dopamine levels and maintained attention2. So sticking to the checklist itself can not only help you increase focus, but crossing off each task may have cognitive benefits as well. 

The takeaway.

Checklists have a handful of brain-healthy benefits: Essentially, keeping track of your daily tasks and accomplishing them one by one helps enhance your focus, and knocking them off the list provides a surge of dopamine. Not to mention, organizing your work and breaking down short-term goals can help you feel less overwhelmed during a particularly busy day—wins all around.

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