Work Smarter: Why You Should Add a ‘Done List’ to Your To-Do List

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This Week’s Insight: I have a bit of a to-do list problem. At any given moment, I have four such lists going: two for the week (personal and work-related), one for the day, and another for the specific stuff I want to get done in the next 90 minutes. (Sometimes I do listen to my own advice.) 

I know. It’s intense. But I still find that I don’t get quite as much done during the day as I intend to. The answer, some productivity experts suggest, might be to add one more item to my to-do list: a “done” list, cataloging all the stuff I accomplished that day.

The Explanation: There aren’t any scientific studies that specifically examine the impact of a done list in the workplace, but Laura Vanderkam, author and time-management sorcerer, extrapolates from some existing research in her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

She writes that research has consistently found that dieters who keep daily diaries tracking what they ate tend to lose more weight. The act of writing it all down allows people to honestly reflect on their food choices, and to notice patterns and identify trends that they can then change, if necessary. The same principle, Vanderkam argues, can be applied to productivity.

Plus, it’s a nice little pat-on-the-back — proof that even if you didn’t get everything on your “official” to-do list done, you did make some progress on something. “Sometimes people get to the end of the day and haven't tackled various priorities, because stuff has come up, but you did something with your time,” Vanderkam said in an email to Science of Us. “Something changed in the world (hopefully!). So what was that? Often it was good stuff. Write it down. Share it with your team. Celebrate it. Just because it wasn't on the list doesn't mean it wasn't important.”

The Takeaway: If keeping a daily log of the way you spent every last hour seems a smidge overwhelming, Chris Bailey, who writes the blog A Year of Productivity, has an alternate idea. “I keep a list of all of my largest accomplishments (every week I capture one or two major things I accomplished, and put them on the list),” he said in an email. “I review this list every Sunday, which gets me pumped for the week ahead.”

Now, then — off I go to add “wrote Work Smarter post” to my done list.