When your to-do list for the day is pages long, but exists only in your head, you’ll very likely miss some agenda items as you make your way thorough your day — and that’s stressful.

Many astronauts know this all too well. When Apollo 11 returned from its historic moon landing in 1969, the interior of the legendary spacecraft was filled — corner to corner — with checklists. From detailed flight plans to small data cards, the astronauts on board say their extensive to-do lists were their “fourth crewmember,” allowing them to remember their vital tasks while staying focused on the details of the high-pressure mission.

Research shows that writing down what you need to do can prompt your brain to focus more clearly, stay organized, and perform better at work. The practice is used across several industries, and it’s a proven productivity hack that’s science-backed. Here are three ways writing checklists can improve your life.

It enhances your memory in stressful situations

Science shows that writing lists can help you remember things better, especially in high-stress environments that require you to remain calm while doing important work. In medicine, for instance, checklists can mean the difference between a patient’s life or death. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) created a Surgical Safety Checklist in 2008, in the hopes of reducing the death rate following high-risk surgeries. Recently, the British Journal of Surgery studied a database covering the records of 12 million patients in Scotland, and discovered that since the requirement was introduced over a decade ago, the country’s post-operation mortality rate has fallen by 36.6%.

It motivates you when you feel overwhelmed

When it comes to staying on top of your to-do list, the act of physically writing down what’s on your plate can encourage you to get things done more efficiently. One reason is because when you feel swamped, the simple organization of a checklist can give you a sense of control over your workload. Plus, each time you check off an item, your brain will experience a burst of dopamine, which will urge you to keep going. Notable leaders like Bill Gates and Richard Branson swear by writing checklists, and they have said that taking handwritten notes has helped keep them organized and motivated during busy times.

It helps your brain wind down before bed

Writing a list at night can encourage your brain to relax before bed, and research shows it can even help you fall asleep faster. Former MLB player Alex Rodriguez has said that his nightly checklist is an important part of his bedtime ritual, and he’s sworn by the practice for years — especially when he needed to prioritize his recovery as part of his rigorous training schedule. “I was in love with that structure,” he recently told the New York Times. “I had a list of my 10 things I had to do, and I would check it every night before I went to bed to see how many I’d done.”

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.