The case for sharing your to-do list

collaborating

As more of us are working remotely these days, more digital task managers are offering collaborative features like sharing specific tasks, commenting on tasks, and making shared to-do lists within your team.

I’ve taken these features for granted as they’ve become more popular, but never really wondered how useful it is to share your to-do list. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to do so, so your colleagues can see what you’re working on or communicate around a shared project.

But what about when you have the option of keeping your to-do list private or making it public? Why would you want to share your tasks if you don’t have to?

Sharing your tasks lets others help you get them done

Xander Schultz believes so strongly in the benefits of sharing tasks that he created an entire app around the idea of public to-do lists. The app, Complete, sadly shut down xx date, but Schultz made a solid argument for sharing your tasks, even if you can’t use his app to do so.

Schultz says “a to-do list, in reality, is a to-do-later list.” Our to-do lists tend to be full of things we’re not ready to do yet, but hope to get to someday. This is where a public to-do list really shines, according to Schultz, because others can see what you’re planning to do sometime in the future and offer support and advice before you need it.

While sites like Yelp, Quora, and Amazon reviews are useful for gathering advice, we tend to browse these sites only when we’re ready to take action—and then get stuck for hours comparing reviews and debating what to do. Schultz says making your tasks public before you’re ready to act on them works better:

A public task allows the opportunity for people to push you the advice and motivation you need before you have to search for a solution.

Say you need to purchase a new set of headphones, for instance. That task might languish on your to-do list for months without you making any effort to get it done. When you do finally decide it’s time to get it done, you could spend hours researching different brands and models and comparing reviews.

With a public to-do list, according to Schultz, you could get recommendations from friends and followers about their favourite headphones well before you’re thinking about making the effort to find some for yourself. What could have been an hour-long task (or longer) that you put off could end up being a ten-minute task based on advice and suggestions from trusted friends.

A public to-do list can be beneficial for longer-term goals, too, says Schultz. He set a weight-loss goal that he struggled to reach by his due date, but with each new update he added about his progress, friends and followers offered support and helpful advice. Schultz says it doesn’t matter that he didn’t reach that goal, because sharing his progress along the way and receiving help to keep going was worth having a public goal that he didn’t complete.

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Making your to-do list public will make it better for you

When software developer Joe Reddington made his to-do list public, he thought it would be a small, simple step towards personal transparency. He’s committed to being transparent and wanted to take a further step to prove that commitment.

He had no idea how big an impact that decision would make on his productivity.

Making your to-do list public, says Reddington, forces you to write a better to-do list than you would have otherwise:

… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

As soon as he made his to-do list public, Reddington noticed several issues with it: duplicate tasks, tasks written as questions, and tasks that were simply poorly-written. Reddington took some time to clean up his list and rewrite most of his tasks so they made sense to anyone reading the list. Doing so made each task easier to get started and easier to finish, so Reddington is now more productive simply because his to-do list is written more carefully.

I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

Reddington says it doesn’t matter who looks at his public list, or even if anyone looks at it. Simply making it public does the trick:

… the number of people looking at it makes very little difference—all that I need to know is that someone might and that’s enough for me.

Sharing your goals makes you more likely to achieve them

Finally, something we can all agree on: whether you’re sharing simple tasks or long-term goals, you probably want to get them done. That’s the whole reason for putting them on your to-do list in the first place, right?

Well, here’s the good news: sharing big tasks and goals makes you more likely to accomplish them.

In a study of 267 people, participants were split into groups, each given different instructions for approaching a goal they wanted to achieve. Some simply kept their goal to themselves and worked towards it privately. Others wrote down a commitment to take action on that goal and shared their commitment with a friend. A final group shared their commitment with a friend but also sent that friend weekly progress updates.

Of the 149 participants who completed the full study, 70% in the weekly updates group either completed their goal or made it further than halfway to completion. 65% of those who shared just an action commitment with a friend also made it past the halfway mark or completed their goal by the study’s end.

But of those who kept their goals private, only 35% were able to get past the halfway mark.

This isn’t the only study to show this effect, either. A 2016 review of 138 different studies found that we tend to do more of what we’ve planned when others can track our progress.

There is a caveat to this effect, though. It works best for action goals, where the focus is completing a task or doing something. For identity-based goals, where the focus is on changing the kind of person you are, or being different, sharing your goals can backfire.

When we tell a friend about a goal we have to be different—for instance, to be a better friend—we tend to feel like we’ve made progress towards our goal simply by talking about it. Which, unfortunately, makes us less likely to take real action towards that goal.

So double-check what type of goals you have before discussing them, but if you have an action-based goal or a big task to complete, sharing your progress can help you get it done.


You may not be ready to share your entire to-do list with the world as Joe Reddington did, but simply sharing a goal or task with a friend can be just as beneficial.

Sharing your to-do list makes you rethink how it’s written, and gives you some accountability for your progress. It also opens up the possibility for others to share their advice and experiences with you to help you accomplish what you’ve planned.


4 Comments on “The case for sharing your to-do list”

  1. Boris Paing says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. I really prefer lifestyle advice based on conclusions from experiments in neuroscience to advice based solely on the experience of some guru, even if the later can be as useful.

    • Belle B. Cooper says:

      I think you’re right that both can be useful. I like to have a balance of both when possible, but it’s definitely nice to have scientific backing for any new lifestyle changes I want to try!

  2. I’ve read a lot on productivity, but learned some new stuff here. The insight about the “moral licensing” effect for sharing goals about being different is particularly helpful. In that vein, I would love to be able to easily share my RescueTime dashboard!

    • Belle B. Cooper says:

      Glad you found this useful! Thanks for the feedback. I’ll pass on your suggestion about sharing your RescueTime dashboard to the rest of the team.