Why you should tear up your to-do list (and write a done one instead)


Everyone’s heard of a to-do list – as busy working mums we often rely on them to remember everything we need to achieve in our day. But how many of you know about the much more motivating power of the done list?

I don’t know about you, but I really struggle with to-do lists. In theory, they’re a great idea. Simply list everything that you need to achieve in a period of time and tick them off as you get them done.

Why to-do lists don’t work (for me)

The only the problem is, I end up adding tasks to mine as fast as I tick them off. In fact, I often end up adding to them faster than I tick them off.

So instead of having the satisfying feeling of gradually working towards the end of my day’s tasks, I get increasingly stressed as the clock ticks towards school run time, and my list is still tauntingly long.

And the next morning, instead of starting the day with a clean slate and lots of satisfyingly big goals to accomplish, I am left trying to work out which of the niggling little jobs from yesterday I can squeeze into my day.

And why a done list does

I realise that something (other than my sanity) has to give. So on days when I’m feeling particularly frustrated, I steal an idea from my friend Claire Bradford. I write a done list.

A done list is the opposite to a to-do list and feels (for me at least) infinitely better. It’s basically (in case you haven’t guessed this already) a list of everything you have achieved that day. Any task, no matter how tiny, goes on the list.

And not just work. I throw practically everything I can into my done list to make myself feel like I have actually moved forward that day.

It turns out that it’s not just Claire and I that have discovered the magical powers of the done list. In fact, I was surprised to discover that there are even apps you can download to help you (iDoneThis, for example, sends you an email every evening asking you what you did that day).

How done lists help to motivate you

Everyone has their own way of writing their done list. I just make an old fashioned list, while others add them to a diary. Some people add to theirs throughout the day as they complete jobs, while others compile them at the end of the day.

Scientific theory backs up the power of the done list too. In their book The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer suggest that making progress, even just small wins, on meaningful work is the most powerful motivator.

And from my experience, they’re right. Glancing at a long to-do list when I have, like now, just 90 minutes until I need to collect my daughter from school make me feel hopeless. And instead of looking down the list to see what I can reasonably squeeze into what’s left of my work day, I usually resort of one of my well-practised procrastination habits.

But when I make a list of what I have achieved since 8:30 that morning instead, I feel energised and all-powerful. And am filled with a purposeful energy that I direct into getting as much done as I can in what remains of my working afternoon.

How to write a done list

The trick to a successful done list is including everything, no matter how small. For example, if I upload a new article onto Talented Ladies Club, I could list just that. Or I could write:

  • Come up with idea for article
  • Research article
  • Write article
  • Upload article to site
  • Proofread article and add meta data
  • Update editorial calendar

Sometimes, it’s only when you write down just how much you do achieve, that you realise how hard you have worked – and what you’ve accomplished.

My done list for today

Add all the other chores you squeeze in between your work too, and your done list starts to look pretty epic. Here’s mine for the past five hours:

  • Put wash on
  • Turn off fridge to defrost
  • Drop daughter off at school
  • Clear up breakfast dishes
  • Pick up flea treatment for the cat
  • Exchange summer school dress
  • Pick up four new business research books from library
  • Meet new business contact for coffee
  • Check and reply to emails
  • Check and reply to social media
  • Research, write and email guest blog
  • Email my son’s Kumon teacher
  • Edit freelance project and send to client
  • Research and write this article
  • Speak to a journalist on phone
  • Speak to a PR manager on phone
  • Introduce PR manager to new contact by email
  • Hang wash out to dry
  • Make lunch
  • Feed cat
  • Reply to emails about school disco (I’m on the PTA)
  • Upload new guest blog to our site
  • Research, write and email interview questions

You have to agree, that’s a not-unimpressive list for five hours (given it includes writing two articles from scratch!). And reading it through makes me feel as if I have achieved at least something today – much more than my nagging to-do list which still has several items that need urgent attention.

And the interesting thing is that half of the things on my done list weren’t even on my to-do list this morning. They just crept into my day like time terrorists and stole precious minutes from my scheduled tasks. And I am sure for many busy women juggling home, family and work, it’s the same.

So if I was only to judge my accomplishments by the lines crossed through completed tasks on my to-do list at the end of each day, I’d go to bed feeling disheartened and hopeless. And probably wake up feeling just as unempowered. But instead, I feel satisfied that I have achieved a worthy amount and full of plans for world domination for tomorrow!

Write your own done list today – and feel more motivated tomorrow!

So if, like me, you struggle to accomplish everything you set out to in a day, and are left feeling discouraged by your never-finished to-do list, try tearing it up and writing a much more motivating done list instead.

It’s quick, easy and can be a big satisfaction-booster at the end of an otherwise-frustrating day – and can inspire you to work towards a much more productive day tomorrow.

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