Infinite Options, Infinite Hassle! Simplify Your Life with a Short List

Optimize Your Lists, from to-do lists to bucket lists to vacation options

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Is your to-do list a mile long (and somehow nothing ever gets done)? Dr. Vishton explains why, when it comes to lists, shorter is better—and how to accomplish this.

Multi colored sticky notes covering a woman's steering wheel
By progressing in terms of a small number of categories, a complex decision can be broken into a sequence of stepwise decisions that fit well within the constraints of the human brain. Photo by Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

How to Make a Short List

Dr. Vishton has shared several ways to make better decisions, including using mental time travel—imagining how your decision will impact your distant future—and starting with a short list of options. One method for designing this short list is to choose categories in a progressive fashion. 

Suppose you’re choosing where to take a vacation. A problematic method would be to start with a large master list with dozens of possible trips to take and then begin narrowing the list down. To avoid analysis paralysis, which occurs when you’re so overwhelmed by the number of choices that you struggle to make a decision, you should limit your choices to approximately six or seven.

One way of narrowing your master list from hundreds down to six would be to divide them into categories first. You could do this by geographic location, for example. 

Should you go to the East Coast of the United States, West Coast, Mexico, or Europe? That’s only four options to consider, and well-suited to human reasoning. 

Suppose you chose Mexico. Do you want to go on a hiking trip, stay at a beach, or visit a city? That presents you with three choices, which should be simple to choose from. 

Let’s say you decide on a city visit. Now your original master list of 100 potential trips might only include a small number of trips that involve spending time in a city in Mexico.

Ultimately, research suggests that the best reasoning will take place when you never actually make that initial, long master list of vacation possibilities at all. By progressing in terms of a small number of categories, a complex decision can be broken into a sequence of stepwise decisions that fit well within the constraints of the human brain.

Optimizing Your To-Do List

The above example involves a specific choice, like where to go on vacation or what health plan to purchase. However, this concept applies to longer-term, ongoing reasoning as well. 

For example, if you make a to-do list for the day, you’ll periodically need to make choices about what to do next. If you write a bucket list of things to do at some time during your life, then you’ll occasionally face the choice of which of those items to pursue next.

The work of Columbia Business professor Sheena Iyengar and her collaborators suggests that a couple of things should be done to best utilize to-do lists. First, these lists should be short—around six items at most. 

If there are dozens of items to do on your list, you’ll be substantially less likely to accomplish even one of these tasks. Your reasoning will be more difficult, less optimal, and you’ll be less satisfied with whatever task you do choose.

Second, Iyengar’s work suggests that, if the list must be long, then it’s a good idea to break it down into small numbers of categories, each of which could contain its own shorter list of specific items. 

You might break it down by time or location. You could also prioritize the items in order or importance.

Will You Run Out of Options?

Some people fear that they are selling themselves short by including too few items on their lists—that they will not accomplish enough of their goals or fulfill all their desires. Dr. Vishton assures readers, though, that they do not have to worry about running out of things to do.

If you finish the items on your to-do list, according to Dr. Vishton, there’s no rule that says you have to stop doing things. You can always think of more things to do at that point, and perhaps make another list.

“Note that, if you ever finish your bucket list, you don’t automatically kick the proverbial bucket,” Dr. Vishton said. “You just make a new list and continue on.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.