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Trade Your To-Do List for a Done List

Start tracking what you accomplish rather than what needs doing for a counterintuitive productivity boost.
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Perhaps this complaint of top VC Marc Andreessen sounds familiar:

"[Y]ou know those days when you’re running around all day and doing stuff and talking to people and making calls and responding to emails and filling out paperwork and you get home and you’re completely exhausted and you say to yourself, 'What the hell did I actually get done today?'"

As every business owner (and, apparently, VC) knows, busyness does not necessarily translate into a sense of accomplishment. Many of us respond to this problem with that trusty tool, the to-do list. If we could just prioritize our tasks properly, we think, so nothing falls through the cracks or unexpectedly disturbs us, certainly we’ll get more done.

How’s that working out for you?

That’s the question asked by a new ebook from productivity startup iDoneThis. It suggests entrepreneurs make a simple substitution for the ineffective, anxiety-inducing to-do list: Try using a ‘Done List’ instead. By the company’s name, you can probably guess iDoneThis might have a stake in advocating the idea, but the book makes a compelling case for why a done list beats a to-do list any day.

The Problem With To-Do Lists

If personal experience hasn’t already convinced you that what’s on your to-do list and what you actually spend your time doing rarely line up, then iDoneThis has plenty of statistics to prove it to you. Data collected from the company’s productivity app show that 41 percent of to-do list items never get done, and only 15 percent of completed tasks were ever on a to-do list in the first place. Thanks to their dismal performance as depots for tasks in progress, to-do lists end up being a warehouse of the uncompleted and a continuous source of worry that we’re not accomplishing enough.

"Psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King discovered that the anxiety that results from having too many conflicting goals causes our productivity as well as our physical and mental health to suffer," reports the book, "so the to-do list gives and takes. It helps us remember the many things we have to tackle. At the same time, it’s a nagging tool that can induce unhealthy, disarming anxiety."

A Better Way

The solution to this problem recommended by Andreessen is the same as the one recommended by iDoneThis--dump the to-do list and replace it with a record of all your small wins and achievements instead. As Andreessen explains, using this technique means that "[e]ach time you do something, you get to write it down and you get that little rush of endorphins that the mouse gets every time he presses the button in his cage and gets a food pellet."

That sounds like a waste of time, you might object. Why would I want to spend time writing down things I’ve already accomplished? But research discussed in the ebook testifies that Andreessen is onto something. Spending a few moments reflecting on what you achieved ends up making you more productive in the end by juicing your energy levels.

"It seems counterintuitive to spend extra time to do one more thing--but taking stock of what you’ve accomplished provides critical fuel. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, authors of the incisive The Progress Principle, pored over 12,000 daily work diary entries and were surprised to find out that making progress--even small wins--on meaningful work is the most powerful motivator," reports the book.

If a to-do list is an energy suck, "your done list will energize you," concludes the ebook.

Will you give the idea a try?

IMAGE: Rob Warde/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 21, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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