Home All Changing your To-Do List To Ta-Da!

Changing your To-Do List To Ta-Da!

written by Daniel Tomasulo 23 July 2015

Daniel Tomasulo '12 holds a PhD in psychology, an MFA in writing, and is the first licensed psychologist and psycho-dramatist to graduate from the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to teaching at New Jersey City University he is an assistant instructor for Martin Seligman at UPenn for the MAPP program. For more information go to his website, Dare2BeHappy.com. Full bio.

Dan's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

I used to wake up in the morning with my to-do list breathing down my neck. You know that feeling? There is so much to do that it seemed like the to-do list came and woke me up. It wanted me to get out of bed as soon as I could. When this happened it was like starting my day off with a panic attack.

Then there were the things I felt I should do: diets, exercise programs, books I’d like to read, instruments I’d like to learn to play, museum trips I thought would be interesting, languages I should learn, and the like. Between to-do and should, there was this low-grade grumble pushing me along. The grumbling I saw as a necessary evil to fire-up my willpower. That was my fuel.

But no matter how much I’d get done, it never quite seemed like enough. My friendly to-do list would wake me up the next morning, reminding me of how much I didn’t get done yesterday and how much more there was to do today. I’d always start out fresh with a big burst of energy and a flurry of organization and enthusiasm. After a good start, followed by some frustration and fatigue, then a little nap, a need to take a break, my day ended in total exhaustion. Then I’d collapse into bed waiting for my to-do alarm clock the next morning. Oy! Ever feel like that?

Barbara Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the leading researchers on positive emotions and their effect on well-being. Her books on positivity and love are international bestsellers, and her research on positive emotions has sparked numerous studies around the world. Hearing her speak several years ago shifted the way I thought about my to-dos. I recently heard her speak about some new research that she and her colleagues are doing. The question they are answering is: “How do we make sustainable positive lifestyle changes?”

Fredrickson began with a sobering reality. Willpower doesn’t work.

The research shows that willpower works like a muscle and becomes fatigued. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution only to have it fall by the wayside in a few weeks? Many children can hold it together during the school day, but then lose it when they come home. Just grinding things out fatigues us and doesn’t allow progress toward goals to be sustained. Using willpower alone won’t get us where we want to go.

Her “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions offers a different path. Her research has advanced our understanding of how positive emotions increase our awareness and encourage novel thoughts and behaviors while building skills and developing resources. This upward emotional spiral directly contrasts with the limiting, downward, and survival-based thoughts and behaviors associated with negativity. Simply put: good emotions generate energy and enthusiasm, while negative thoughts and feelings deplete us. Willpower alone isn’t enough to make positive changes sustainable. We need to be fueled by what affirms us.

At the core of her research is that we can broaden and build our positive emotions by making small thoughtful investments in six areas:

  1. Being active
  2. Being social
  3. Learning something new
  4. Taking care of the body
  5. Eating well
  6. Pursuing meaning in life

These six domains keep us feeling engaged with good feelings. Small doses of positivity energize and sustain us. Eventually they draw us to broaden and build our resources for renewing ourselves. Think of it like emotional nourishment. If you were running a marathon you’d not only need your willpower and determination—you would need to nourish yourself properly to reach your goal.

Starting the day with appreciation for the things we’ve accomplished in the past 24 hours is a good place to begin.

Savoring what we’ve accomplished helps us experience gratitude for the good things in our lives, which puts us in a better frame of mind than just grinding it out. Then we can invest in the six areas that we know have value for us in the long run. These areas fuel us with the sustenance we need to make life worth living. When we do that, we change our to-do’s into ta-da’s!


Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Alarm clock courtesy of Alan Cleaver
Being social courtesy of Nir Tober
Being active courtesy of Brian Carson

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Chuck 23 July 2015 - 4:58 pm

Excellent article. A keeper.

phoebe atkinson 24 July 2015 - 8:02 am

Dan Loved reading your article. you have such a unique combination of strengths as you translate the pp concepts with such clarity and additionally sprinkle your article with so much zest, optimism and delight. Thank yo I learned so much and have already passed it on to many colleagues and students.

Kate 1 August 2015 - 5:51 am

I started reading your article with energy and hope as I recognise the “to do lists” you describe. Your tips on including Fredrickson’s six areas from her Broaden & Build theory left me feeling that I’ve more to add to my to do list rather than able to manage it. I would love you to write more about Baumeister’s research on Willpower and how that links in a future article.


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