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MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

Why a ‘done’ list beats a to-do list Add to ...

Done! There’s a satisfaction that comes with completing a task – striking a fat line through and item on your to-do list, or putting a large check mark beside it.

But such moments are fleeting. Our lives are ruled by to-do lists, always pummelling us with more tasks to tackle. And Janet Choi thinks that’s wrong. She believes you also need a “done” list, with reminders of everything you have completed.

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She works as creative director at iDoneThis.com, which offers an app for tracking your accomplishments, revolving around a daily e-mail asking you to log the tasks you’ve completed in a record the app keeps for review. It’s free for individuals, with a cost for businesses, but you obviously don’t need the app to take advantage of the idea behind it.

“Writing down what you get done focuses you on accomplishments and progress. You use your history to bring you forward,” Ms. Choi said in an interview.

The importance of progress was highlighted in the 2011 bestseller The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. Their research, studying daily diary entries by 238 people on 26 project teams, found that making headway on meaningful work brightens a person’s inner work life and boosts long-term progress. It isn’t monetary rewards and recognition that truly motivate us. It’s a sense that we are accomplishing something meaningful – day by day.

That’s where a done list comes in. “When you record your dones, you capture proof of progress, enabling you to see all the tiny triumphs that hold value in the long run, rather than focusing too much on what’s left on your plate. That plate is going to be full most of the time anyway. So it’s ultimately more useful for you to accept that and learn from your progress history to fill your plate in a happier, healthier, richer way,” Ms. Choi writes in a free e-book offered by her company, The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List.

A done list can be maintained by a team as well as individuals. One of the advantages of the done list – compared with simple tick marks on your to-do list to review your progress – is that a lot of your day’s work never makes the to-do list, as you receive phone calls and e-mails that lead to decisions or prompt immediate action. The done list can capture those, as well as the progress that flows from meetings you attend.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, Opsware and Ning, and now a prominent venture capitalist, calls the done list his anti-to-do list. He keeps his record on index cards and loves the rush of endorphins when he marks something on it.

In the e-book, he said that it comes in particularly handy “those days when you’re running around all day and doing stuff and talking to people and making calls and responding to e-mails and filling out paperwork and you get home and you’re completely exhausted and you say to yourself, ‘What … did I actually get done today?’ ”

Some people mark down items as they finish a task. Others find that ruins the flow of the day and prefer to do it in the evening. Ideally, your list is more than just a list – it’s a point of departure for reflection on the day or recent days.

“The reflection part is important. If you just keep a running list, you don’t get a higher-level understanding of what you are accomplishing,” Ms. Choi said in the interview. In the book, she suggests the following questions to help such reflection:

What did I get done today?

This is your essential starting point.

What did I make progress on today?

Even on frustrating days, you have likely moved forward on at least one item, she points out.

What stood out today and how did it make me feel?

Did a co-worker compliment me? Was a task particularly frustrating or difficult to get through? Am I proud of or frustrated by something I did today? What was remarkable about the day? “Our emotions get left out of discussions on productivity,” Ms. Choi said in the interview. “So we want to add it into the reflection part. It’s important to find out why you were frustrated – it may reveal a pattern.”

What did I do today that I especially want to remember tomorrow?

The answer to this question may be useful for a future performance evaluation or your annual New Year’s reflection on your life.

How can I turn negatives into progress tomorrow?

It’s important to learn from setbacks and errors.

What good have I done today?

The answer to this question may brush away negative feelings and highlight what is important.

The toughest part of a done list, Ms. Choi noted in the interview, is actually taking the time to write down items and review them. Our lives are ruled by the urgent, and this list-making may not seem urgent. But it’s important, and she believes it is vital to incorporate it into your daily life.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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