The immensity of ambitious goals can distort your perspective to make them seem impossible to reach. What's better? Just get rid of them altogether--starting with your "to-do list."
When you're caught in a rut of distortion and discouragement, exhausted from running as fast as you can to gain some ground, to-do lists can just add to the crush of anxiety that you're not doing enough.
Even Marc Andreessen, with his tremendous career milestones of starting Netscape, Ning, Opsware, and Andreessen Horowitz, wasn't impervious to such feelings of losing direction and motivation amidst the busy hours:
"[W]hen you're running around all day and doing stuff and talking to people and making calls and responding to emails and filling out paperwork ... you get home and you're completely exhausted and you say to yourself, 'What the hell did I actually get done today?'"
He came up with a simple solution for understanding what he actually got done every day: writing it down. Every time Andreessen did something he considered productive or useful, he recorded it on a done list, which he irreverently called his "Anti-Todo list."
The Benefits of Accomplishment
While the to-do list has its place in organizing your tasks, having a better understanding of what you accomplish is more important than you'd think. It's an often overlooked source of motivation.
As Andreessen explains, the motivation rush happens when you write down what you get done and also when you review your growing done list:
"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. And then at the end of the day... take a look at today's ... Anti-Todo list and marvel at all the things you actually got done."
Disconnecting your done list from your to-do list provides fresh context, insight from all the information you can capture about your day, and a better understanding of how you define productivity. When you can acknowledge your achievements for the day like Andreessen and Gascoigne, you gain rushes of encouragement and motivation without getting demoralized by what's left on your plate.
The Power of Emotions
It turns our emotions make a big difference in how you get stuff done and that's a fact that surprisingly gets overlooked. Positive moods such as feeling encouraged and motivated promote problem-solving and improve creativity and decision-making.
The most powerful way to feed those positive moods is to make progress. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, who wrote about this finding in the
The Progress Principle, discovered that even small wins count in fueling your drive and engagement.
This positive fuel turns out to get some pretty good mileage too. As Amabile and Kramer also discovered, positive emotions have a powerful carryover effect. "The more positive a person's mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day--and, to some extent, the day after that--even taking into account his moods on those later days."
Contrary to how positivity broadens your creativity and motivation, negativity narrows them, which can cause your productivity to plummet. Emotions such as fear, anxiety, and sadness influence how you work--narrowing your thought patterns to weaken memory, planning and decision-making.
Plus we really don't work well under stress. Amabile and Kramer disproved this pervasive management myth of "no pressure, no diamonds" that infects people's understanding of how motivation works. Analyzing nearly 12,000 work diary entries, they correlated descriptions of progress and setbacks to self-reported levels of happiness and frustration. They found that the impact of setbacks on lowering your motivation is three times as powerful as the positive power of progress to fuel it.
If we can recognize that our feelings are heading into a negative feedback loop of low motivation and productivity--we can take control and break out of the loop to catch a wave of positive drive.
The simple yet counterintuitive act of writing down what you get done is a powerful antidote to unproductive, negative feelings. When you fail to recognize how much you actually accomplish, it's much easier to lose perspective, succumb to feelings of failure and guilt, and burn out.
The gain for Andreessen was great. "I love this technique," he writes. "Being able to put more notches on my accomplishment belt, so to speak, by writing down things on my Anti-Todo list as I accomplish them throughout the day makes me feel marvelously productive and efficient. Far more so than if I just did those things and didn't write them down."
Successful people reach achievements by balancing their outlook to stick out the bad and ugly times. Recognize all kinds of forward steps, wins of all sizes, which happen regularly thanks to your efforts, rather than harnessing all your hopes on big milestones. Your done list will serve as a regular practice of rejuvenation and inspiration after a hard-day's work that can carry you to accomplishing wonderful things.