Working Smarter: The Fulfilling “To-Done” List

Feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list? Try making a daily “to-done” list. Tracking your successes, however small, can help you stay motivated and productive.

It might sound like apathetic navel-gazing (“felt bad about feeling bad, stared at cat”), but the practice has a venerable history: Ben Franklin kept a daily record of successes and failures. And recent research confirms that the to-done list is an amazing productivity tool. Here’s why:

To-do lists can cause paralysis. A to-do list can all too easily plunge you into despair, because when you see everything you have to do in black and white, it seems unmanageable. This has even been proven in a study.

Tracking small wins is a powerful motivator. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile recruited 238 people in 7 companies to complete a daily work journal for an average of four months and found that what motivates people most at work is the feeling of making progress, even if the progress is small. Even recording “cleaned up some code, responded to a bunch of emails” provides a ping of satisfaction. As Walter Chen, CEO of I Done This, explains, jobs in the tech industry often involve “a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” unlike, say “tying up bales of hay,” a task where you can clearly see how much progress you’ve made. A to-done list is your haystack.

Tracking your behavior helps you make changes.  Food diaries are great tools for dieters because there’s often a big gap between what people think they’re eating (lots of vegetables) and what they’re actually eating (a double cheeseburger with lettuce in it).  Similarly, there can be a big gap between what you think you’re doing (preparing a presentation) and how you actually spend your time (clicking on articles on Facebook). Keeping a work diary also lets you see which activities are energy-draining time-sucks and which ones make you and your team feel happy and engaged. This isn’t always as obvious as you might think. In Amabile’s study, one employer brought pizza and bottled water to a team that was working late, providing a major morale boost. Recording an activity like this in your work diary might make you realize you should do it regularly.

Unfortunately, while to-do list apps are legion, the to-done app has far to go. You’re stuck with journaling apps like Day One, RedNotebook or TrackIt Notebook. It helps to have a daily reminder, so set a recurring appointment on your calendar or an alert on the phone. Or try I Done This, a service that emails you a daily reminder at 6 PM. You shoot back a quick reply, and it organizes your data in a calendar format and word cloud.

Still, you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to keep a to-done list. After all, a humble Word doc has served me well all these years, and Ben Franklin managed perfectly well with a quill pen.

Helena Echlin is a journalist and etiquette expert whose work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian and The Times in the UK, and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the US. A native of London, she now lives in San Francisco.

Helena Echlin
Helena Echlin has written for numerous publications, such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the UK, and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the US. For five years, she wrote Table Manners, an etiquette advice column for
Helena Echlin
Tags: Business,Productivity
  • Meghan Ward

    What a great idea! I’m going to start a To Done list right now. It gets me down that my To Do list never, ever ends.