Forget the boring ‘to-do’ list — here’s why you should be using a ‘done’ list instead

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There’s a new list in town.
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Business Insider

A “done” list might sound a little self-indulgent – like, “Look at everything I accomplished today and how awesome I am!”

And it can be, kind of. It can also make you more successful at work by motivating you to continue making progress on your goals.

In contrast with a to-do list, a done list catalogs everything completed that day, showing you how much progress you made instead of highlighting what’s still left to do.

The done list isn’t a new idea, per se. Marc Andreessen wrote about the “anti-to-do list,” on which you include everything useful you’ve achieved during the day, in a 2007 blog post.

More recently, Laura Vanderkam told Melissa Dahl at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog that a done list helps because it might contain items you didn’t include on the original to-do list. Even if a crisis pops up and draws your attention away from the projects you planned to tackle that day, you’re able to see that the day wasn’t a waste because you accomplished something.

A done list can also reveal your weaknesses, putting you on a path to self-improvement. As an example, Dahl points to Vanderkam’s “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,” in which Vanderkam explains how dieters who kept daily food journals tended to lose more weight, presumably because they began to notice unhealthy patterns in their eating habits.

The done list applies this same principle to productivity: After seeing what we accomplished – or didn’t – each day, we’re able to identify trends in our own work habits.

In the 2014 ebook “The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List,” Janet Choi and Walter Chen of productivity company iDoneThis cite research by Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer on the “progress principle”: The most important motivation boost during the workday comes from making progress in meaningful work.

As Amabile and Kramer write in The Harvard Business Review, even “small wins” – think catching an error in a teammate’s project before you submit it – can be motivating.

In other words, seeing the tasks you completed yesterday can spur you to do your best work today.

Choi and Chen outline the steps to writing and using a done list:

1. When you do anything you consider useful, however small a win it may be, write it down on your done list. (Or wait until the end of the day to write down your list.)

2. At the end of the day, look at your list. Reflect on and celebrate all the things you got done!

3. Review regularly – in the mornings to kickstart your day, every week, month, or year, or simply whenever you’d like a little boost or look back.

Choi and Chen offer a number of questions to help you craft your done list, including, “What did you do today that you especially want to remember in the future?” and, perhaps even more importantly, “How can I turn negatives into progress tomorrow?”