Why Your 'To Do' List Is Failing You

Instead of listing to-do's, try keeping a "done" list.

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By Lisa Evans • Jul 7, 2014 Originally published Jul 7, 2014

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Making a to-do list is often cited by productivity experts as they key to getting more done in the day. Writing down tasks should, in theory, prevent them from falling through the cracks. Yet data collected by a productivity startup, iDoneThis, showed many of us end our days with only a few items crossed off the list. Research conducted for their productivity app showed 41 percent of to-do list items never get completed and only 15 percent of tasks completed during the day actually start out as items listed on the to-do list.

"What you get done doesn't always correlate with what you set out to do," says Janet Choi, CCO of iDoneThis. Choi argues to-do lists too often become a collection of uncompleted tasks and a constant source of worry and anxiety that we aren't accomplishing enough. Although a to-do list helps us remember the many items we need to tackle during the day, it can also be a nagging tool that hinders productivity by inducing anxiety rather than motivating us. Part of the problem with to-do lists, says Choi, is that we tend to overload them. "We don't plan them very well. We don't think of them strategically. We just word-vomit onto a piece of paper what we want to get done," she says. The longer the to-list becomes, she says, the less powerful it is.

Rather than relying on a to-do list, Choi suggests adding another list to your day – a done list – arguing tracking what you actually get accomplished rather than what needs doing can boost productivity and motivation and make you work smarter. Unlike a to-do list, which tells you what you have yet to accomplish, a done list is a record of all of your small victories during the day. Writing down the things you've already accomplished may sound like a waste of time, but consider this: every time you write down an accomplishment, you receive a rush of endorphins that gives you the energy to continue on.

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iDoneThis's ebook "The Busy Person's Guide to the Done List" details how to create a done list and how to make to-do lists more effective. Here are some of their key tips:

Be selective. You don't have to write down every single thing you do during the day, only those tasks that bring you closer to your goal. "What you choose to write down depends on what you value," says Choi. If your goal is to write a book, your done list would include all of the writing and research progress you made during the day, but wouldn't include bookkeeping tasks, calling your child's teacher or cleaning out your desk as those things aren't moving you any closer to your goal.

Write down what you get done as soon as you do it. Progress is a powerful tool to the brain. Simply writing down a few small accomplishments can motivate you to do more.

Ask questions that cause you to reflect. Asking questions is a great way to help you focus your done list. Some questions include: What progress did I make on (x project) today? What impacted my progress? How can I turn negatives (for example, interruptions) into progress tomorrow? What did I learn today that I can use to further (x project)?

Use a done list to complement your to-do list. Choi doesn't advocate replacing the to-do list with a done list, but using each to complement the other. "You get the forward-looking planning stuff of the to-do list and then you also get your progress report with the done list," she says. iDoneThis' e-book also contains tips for making the to-do list more effective including splitting tasks up into smaller steps so they're easier to get through, assigning due dates or times so tasks don't spill over into the next day or week, and considering what will distract you from the items on your list before writing them down. Making a lengthy to-do list on a day when you have a full schedule of back-to-back meetings means the list will only be a source of anxiety as you continually glance at a long list of things yet to be accomplished. Selecting the top two or three priorities can help your day seem more manageable and focused.

Related: Want to Be a Better Manager? Get a Dog.

Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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