The Power of the Done List

Meaty Congrats

The Problem:  To-Do Lists Don’t Work for Me.

To-do lists just don’t work for some people.

We may be more right-brained. Perhaps our working styles don’t mesh with more intricate prioritizing or the task list format. Whatever it is, we know that one productivity system does not fit all. 

Plus, a recent study by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller found that detailed planning works when you have one big to-do item, but the longer the list, the less powerful a tool it is to get stuff done.

For those of us who are unmoved by the to-do list (and the arguments of its most fervent disciples), we feel that they loom without spurring action, rebuke without encouragement. They don’t care about our circumstances or our moods. In fact, they don’t care about us at all, sitting there with items unchecked and uncrossed, coldly expectant. And in return, we don’t care about them. To-do lists can’t be effective when they are simultaneously discouraging and easy to ignore.

The Solution:  Keep a Done List

We suggest a compelling alternative — the done list. Instead of itemizing things that haven’t happened yet and living in the wishful subjunctive, flip your focus to the immediacy of the present and the concreteness of the past. Is it more useful to know how much you had planned on running or how far you actually ran?

The simple power of the done list in encouraging productivity is that it relies on the fact that, as Leo Babauta says of living without goals, “you simply do.”

Why Done Lists Work

Recording your “dones” gets the ball rolling and builds momentum to propel you into the next day to get even more done. Progress itself provides powerful motivation, engagement, and encouragement. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer have found that “small wins”, even incremental steps, power progress. And once you have a small win, it’s easier to follow Jerry Seinfeld’s directive: “Don’t break the chain.”

Keeping a done list encourages reflection and awareness of the hows and whys of where you are, yielding patience and perspective, better ability to plan, and a clearer picture of where you stand.

Your done list is difficult to ignore, because it requires your active participation. The practice depends on you to record your accomplishments (or lack of dones) and self-feedback to exist.

How to Keep a Done List

It’s really up to you

Unlike the checklists and itemization of to-do lists, you have more freedom in how you choose to write down your dones. That said, don’t just turn a done list into a “done” to-do list. The value of the done list is its responsiveness to you and the reality of your day. This way, you control your lists instead of the other way around.

Just take a few minutes to reflect.

Reviewing what you got done doesn’t take a lot of time, but in return, you’ll start to be more aware of your achievements. A done list helps you acknowledge how you dealt with what life brings your way, the planned and the unexpected.

Insert some comments and observations along the way

You’ll gain more motivation and learn better this way. Enjoy and celebrate accomplishments to pave the way for future ones. Think of a game plan when something didn’t go your way. Notice when something that had once been a reluctant to-do, like eating more healthily, has become a positive life habit.

Be thoughtful.

Unlike to-do lists which can focus on errands and little things, done lists are most useful with context and purpose. So you may want to avoid recording mundane minutiae like “paid the bills” or “did the laundry”, unless such activities are part of a broader scheme like better financial responsibility and building better cleaning habits.

Balance your to-lists.

For those of you who swear by to-do lists, a done list can be a useful balancing tool for analyzing your journey from plan to result and improving how you craft your future to-do lists.

Get more done by focusing on the done!