Why you should swap your 'to-do' list for a 'done' list

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
Woman writing to-do list yellow pen. Concept planning and self-management. Top view, above
To-do lists to keep ourselves on track during the day, but can also remind us of everything we’ve failed to do. Photo: Getty

We tend to have a complicated relationship with to-do lists. On the one hand, they’re helpful for reminding us what we need to do and when. On the other, they remind us of everything we’ve failed to do. This can trigger stress and anxiety, neither of which are conducive to a productive day.

At the start of the day, we add huge amounts of work to our to-do lists, only to abandon them at 3pm when we realise there is no chance of getting it all done. However, numerous productivity blogs have touted the benefits of “done” lists — the antithesis of the to-do list.

The done list takes various different forms, but the underlying method is to focus on the tasks you’ve managed to complete. You can write down each thing you’ve managed to finish at the end of the day, or add completed tasks to your traditional to-do list to give you a sense of accomplishment.

Celebrating small wins

The idea behind the done list is to celebrate small wins. You write down your achievements during the day, which makes you feel productive, successful and engaged — which means you’re more likely to get more done in the future.

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There is scientific evidence to back up this theory too. During the day, much of the work we do aims towards minor milestones, like getting halfway through a project or clearing your inbox. These contribute to larger goals in your careers, such as gaining a client or a promotion. However, Harvard Business School academic Teresa Amabile found that it’s the daily progress on your small goals that boosts motivation, productivity and creativity.

When she and her colleagues analysed nearly 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees across seven companies, they discovered something tracking small achievements had a direct and positive impact on people’s motivation. This is because small accomplishments boost our sense of confidence and activate the brain’s reward circuit. In turn, this releases chemicals that give us a sense of achievement.

The problem with to-do lists

Many of us rely on to-do lists to keep ourselves on track during the day, with the aim to get rid of as many tasks as possible. It’s tempting to do the easiest things first, like checking emails, to tick these off. However, we’re often so keen to strike tasks off our lists that we ignore the most important tasks and forget how to prioritise.

We also tend to jump straight into the tasks we enjoy the most and ignore the ones we don’t until they are looming over us. To address this, some people suggest “eating the frog” — in other words, getting rid of the task you like the least so it is out of the way.

Another key issue with to-do lists is that everything takes longer than we think. It’s not our fault, though — a phenomenon called the “planning fallacy” is to blame. First coined in 1977 by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it describes our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task.

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In 2011, Kahneman expanded on the concept in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he attributed planning fallacy to two factors. The first is that we fail to take into consideration how long similar tasks have taken in the past.

Secondly, we tend to believe in the best-case scenario and assume we won’t run into any issues that will cause delays. This is linked to a psychological concept referred to as optimism bias, a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to believe the future will be better than the past.

It’s unlikely we will abandon to-do lists, as it’s something lots of us do first thing in the morning, but adding in your completed tasks might just give you an extra boost. And remember, you can only do so much in a day.