I have a complicated relationship with to-do lists. They are undeniably useful for plotting out your day or week ahead of time, and they can be a great way to hold yourself accountable for getting things done. But they are designed to remind you of all the things you haven’t done. As soon as you cross off one task, another one or two or 10 await you. The whole exercise can be a dispiriting reminder that no matter hard you work or how much you accomplish, there will always be more work to do until you die. Because of the discouraging nature of to-do lists, I have a habit of abandoning them: My computer contains countless Word files, Outlook tasks, and sticky notes littered with uncompleted assignments and chores.
But there is one list of tasks that I have never been tempted to abandon: a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks every article and blog post I have written or edited, and every podcast or video I have appeared in, since the beginning of 2013. Thanks to this spreadsheet, I can tell you exactly how many pieces of content (for lack of a better term) I worked on last year (486), and the previous year (310), and the year before (292). (The increase reflects the fact that I shifted my focus from longer articles to shorter blog posts in 2015.) I use shorthand to identify each article—phrases like “zombie lobsters,” “sexy potato calendar,” and “college in Boston,” which contain just enough information to jog my memory. At a single glance, this spreadsheet allows me to see everything I have done as a writer and editor over the past three years.
Obviously, you don’t care how much work I produce. But I do, and so do my bosses. And though my system might seem excessively self-congratulatory, I encourage you to consider adapting it to your own work. It has been an invaluable tool for setting goals, improving my productivity, and getting a handle on my impostor syndrome.
If you read productivity blogs, you may have come across the concept of the “done list,” of which my spreadsheet is one variation. The done list takes different forms depending on who’s telling you about it. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has recommended writing all your daily accomplishments on an index card and “at the end of the day, before you prepare tomorrow’s 3x5 card, take a look at today’s card and its Anti-Todo list and marvel at all the things you actually got done that day.” Others suggest goosing your to-do list with things you’ve already done to give yourself a sense of momentum. The concept of done lists has drawn enough support to beget an app called, straightforwardly if ungrammatically, I Done This.
The idea behind the done list is simple, regardless of what the list looks like. Keeping track of what you do makes you feel productive, which makes you feel happy and energized, which translates into more productivity going forward. “The simple act of writing down and keeping track of what you accomplish is motivating and illuminating,” write I Done This’ Janet Choi and Walter Chen in an e-book subtitled “The Science of Small Wins.” “Your done list gives you credit for the full breadth of your accomplishments, capturing everything that came up during the day that might not have been preordained by your to-do list or initial plans.”
I was not aware of I Done This, or any of the productivity literature on done lists, when I started keeping my spreadsheet. My list emerged haphazardly after three things happened within the space of about a month: My boss asked me to increase my writing output, I read an Ask Polly advice column that suggested ending each day by writing down “at least two things you did that day that you’re proud of,” and I started seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist who encouraged me to challenge my maladaptive beliefs about myself through various journaling exercises. One of those maladaptive beliefs will surely be familiar to many readers: I felt like a fraud and thought I didn’t deserve to be where I was. (Being told by my boss that I needed to up my output only reinforced this belief.) The spreadsheet was a way to counter my impostor experience with cold, hard facts: It was impossible to believe that I was a fraud when I was looking at a document full of evidence of everything I had accomplished. My done list helped me increase my production and fight my self-esteem problems in one fell swoop.
It has also helped me take a big-picture view of my work and be more deliberate, and realistic, about my goals. Some done-list proponents, such as Andreessen, suggest destroying (or ignoring) your done list after you’ve reflected on your accomplishments each day or week—but I’ve found that adding each day’s done-list items to a single spreadsheet has been invaluable. During my annual performance reviews, I can draw on actual data instead of just evaluating my work based on my feelings and recollections. Keeping notes on what I’ve been up to also helps me identify trends in my work and set realistic goals for the future. Just by skimming my done spreadsheet, I can get a good sense of the subjects I’ve been writing about and pull out examples of the kind of work I’d like to do more of. When you only have a vague sense of what you’ve accomplished in the past week or month or year, your goals for growth and improvement will necessarily also be vague. When you know exactly what you’ve accomplished, you can set specific, achievable goals.
To be honest, the main reason I keep maintaining my done list is that it feels good. Unlike most productivity hacks, it doesn’t feel like a chore or like something I’m making myself do; it feels like a pleasure. I get a frisson of self-satisfaction every time I update it. (For what it’s worth, it does not take much time to maintain—I spend maybe 30 seconds a day updating the list.) You might roll your eyes at me for wanting to pat myself on the back for every little thing I get done at work. But most productivity techniques require a little self-trickery. Why not trick yourself into feeling better about your work, just by paying closer attention to how you actually spend your time?
Depending on the nature of your work, it might not be feasible to record every discrete project you complete, the way I do. But if you struggle with feeling unproductive or fraudulent, you should try some form of done list—whether it’s keeping an ongoing list of your accomplishments from month to month and year to year or just jotting down the most important things you’ve done at the end of each day. Whether or not you also keep a to-do list—I currently do, for what that's worth—reflecting on the things you’ve done will give you an occasion to step off of the treadmill and feel satisfied for a moment before you get back on to face everything you haven’t done yet.
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