A to-do list is what most people see as the pinnacle of personal productivity. You set a plan, work the plan, and the check items off the list. To-do lists can be a great. They help you focus on what is important instead of just what happens to be on your mind.
However, there are times when creating a to-do list isn’t the best thing. There are times when you need to be able to freely explore and do whatever comes to mind. Vacations are one example. If you create a to-do list (and I know some people who do) for your vacation, it might take away from some of what you need to get out of a vacation.
I also find that there are times where I need to focus on a particular area, but without having a pre-defined set of tasks. For example, if I set aside a day to work on improving this website, I may or may not have a list of things I need to do. Sometimes it might be best for me to just find tasks and do them instead of trying to come up with all the tasks ahead of time.
Spending a day at the library is another example. If you have a preset idea of exactly what you want to accomplish, you might miss some valuable things you could be do that just come serendipitously your way.
The most likely reason people aren’t able to follow a to-do list during a normal work day is because of unexpected fires and emergencies. You have a great plan, but the whole world seems like it is conspiring to prevent you from touching even one item on your list. It isn’t that you aren’t accomplishing anything, it is just not the stuff you had on your to-do list.
This is where the idea of a have-done list comes in. Instead of feeling guilty because you spent a day following no prescribed path, simply take note of what you did. At the end of the day, make a shortlist of what you accomplished. This gives you a chance to reflect on how well this approach to work fits with your personality. It will also help you better understand the types of things that you do naturally and the types of things you avoid. This understanding can benefit you when trying to use a to-do list in the future.
Basically, my point is to give yourself a way to see what you’ve accomplished without worrying about deciding what you are going to do ahead of time. Most likely, a to-do list of some type will be the most beneficial for the majority of situations, but making a have-done list at the end of the day helps for those times where a to-do just isn’t appropriate.
Originally published February 26, 2007.
Joshua Mormann says
Well put Mark, This is great advice. In fact, a “have done” list is far more important when it comes to your employment review than a “to do” list, wouldn’t you say?
Mark Shead says
@Joshua – Definitely. Before I started my own company, I would always make a detailed list of accomplishments before any review with my manager. It made a big difference in how I was perceived.
Joshua Mormann says
My work-day is 80% fire drills and odd jobs that end up taking priority over my to-do list, often making my to-do list more counter productive than it should be. I’m now on work-day #3 having used a “have-done” list, and I can already say that I have actually gotten more done as a result of it, and I have a record to point it out. Thanks again Mark.
Mark Shead says
@Joshua – I’m glad to hear it is working out well for you. It is a lot easier to be motivated when you can see everything you’ve accomplished instead of just focusing on the things that didn’t get done. Good luck!
Keith G. says
I read one time about the idea of a “Yay Me” list, a collection of bragging points used as an encouragement when you’re feeling down. I’ve tried to keep such a list, both for encouragement and also possible fodder for the next job search.
Alan Wu says
Mark and Joshua:
You both are great. I am a strong J type of person. I am trying to relax a little bit. Actually I am writing some time management tips for P type of people to motivate myself. Visit me at Twitter.
Do more with less is an accomplishment. Knowing what matter to you most is wisdom.
Not a bad idea. But I think I would jumo around and be very unproductive overall, and just forget to do things. We all can DO things, it’s doing the RIGHT things, well and with focus that is the bane of productivity.
I prefer something like Forrester’s book Do It Tomorrow. He makes a case for adding things to FUTURE dates and making any supposedly urgent thing prove it deserves to be added to a day. It sounds a bit trite, but he has a brilliant little system for doing this. Closed lists are powerful motivational tools when used right.
I’m not a fan of GTD (Allen) because it’s such a chore. I like simplicity. But I need some simple structure or I tend to flit around and not focus and take care of business.
Having said all this, I have to admit, a Done list is a clever idea. If a person is already on target and doesn’t tend to forget things, then maybe this can be useful. But these types of high-producers probably don’t need to bother reading life hacks to start with!