Do you run your work life with a to-do list? It looks like a lot of us do, based on the sheer number of to-do apps available for every device from smartwatches to desktop computers. To-do lists absolutely have their place--without one I'd never keep track of tasks like paying bills and organizing meetings, the kinds of things that easily fall through the cracks when you're focused on the core elements of your job. But if you want to feel motivated, set that to-do list aside, and make a list of what you've already accomplished instead.
That advice comes from best-selling author and executive coach Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it. These coaching sessions come with homework, and one recent assignment was to make a list of all the things I had already done to advance toward my most ambitious goals. It was something I'd never done before, and it was a revelation.
If you've never made an already-done list, here's why you should make one right now:
1. It shows you how much progress you've made.
Think about where you were a year ago, or five years ago. Chances are, if you think back you'll see that you've already made a lot of progress toward achieving your career ambitions. We all tend to get caught up in our day-to-day activities and objectives. We tend to focus on the future, rather than the past. And to many of us, an accomplishment looks impressive right up until the moment we attain it--after which it seems like no big deal.
Put those tendencies together, and you're likely not to notice how far you've come. "One reason we track progress is most of the time we've made huge progress and we're the only ones who don't know," Capland explains.
2. It helps you focus on the positive rather than the negative.
The human brain is designed to take note of negative information much more than positive information. For our prehistoric ancestors, surrounded by threats of all descriptions, this orientation was literally a survival mechanism. In today's world, it often distorts our perceptions so that we see our lives and our careers as more dire than they really are.
Writing down the good things you've accomplished forces you to pay attention to the positive, at least for a little while. That's a good thing.
3. It shows you where your efforts are paying off and where they aren't.
There's a big project I'm hoping to sell. In my mind, the reason it hasn't sold yet was that I've been too busy with current projects to pitch it to potential buyers. Looking at my already-done list showed me I was wrong--I had already sent my pitch to nine potential buyers, all of whom either said no or failed to respond to repeated follow-ups. I'm not giving up on that project, but seeing how many times I'd tried and failed to sell it tells me that either I need to make some changes to how I pitch or else cast a wider net. Or maybe both.
4. It shows you where you're falling short on pursuing your goals.
I guarantee it: If you make an already-done list you'll be pleasantly surprised to see how much progress you've made on some of your goals. But there may also be a few where you've taken no steps at all. If that happens, ask yourself why not. Is it because these are "stretch" goals that are too frightening to go after? Or are they goals you aren't fully committed to pursuing?
"You can see where you're taking yourself out of the game and where that has become a pattern," Capland says. "For the things you haven't done, ask yourself: 'Do I still think they're important? And if so, what am I willing to do about them?'"
5. It gives you momentum.
Capland gave me this assignment on a day when I was feeling particularly down. It worked. Making me realize how much I had already accomplished gave me the confidence boost I needed to keep working toward my goals.
Making an already-done list can do the same for you. If you're feeling daunted by the plans you've made or the goals you want to pursue in the coming year, take a few minutes to look back and write down all the things you've already done to move forward. Those daunting goals may not look so impossible after all.