The Art of the Done List: Harnessing the Power of Progress

From carpenters to sculptors, makers end each workday with a physical object looking different than it did that morning. But what if you’re a knowledge worker? How do we know our level of progress when the fruits of our labors can be easily and quickly buried by our next task? 

Maintaining your motivation is a difficult battle, especially when you feel paralyzed by a crushing list of action items and projects that seems longer at the end of each day. The solution? Make a “done list.” Making one is simple:

  1. When you do anything you consider useful, however small a win it may be, write it down on your done list. Alternatively, wait until the end of the day to make your list.
  2. At the end of the day, look over your list. Reflect on and celebrate everything you finished and shipped.
  3. Review regularly — in the mornings to kickstart your day, or every week, month, year, or simply whenever you need a dose of perspective.

The simple act of pausing to reflect and acknowledge your efforts provides valuable boosts of motivation, focus, and insight that would otherwise be lost amidst your busy day. Your done list acts as a signpost, a manifestation of all that day’s hard work. This flips an overwhelmed mindset into action mode to correct course, learn from mistakes, and ultimately make better progress. To start, ask yourself the following questions:

What did you get done today? Simply look back at your day through the lens of accomplishment. Answering this question becomes a quiet act of affirmation and celebration. 

What did I make progress on today? Even on frustrating, seemingly unproductive days, you can almost always find one thing that you moved forward.

Your done list acts as a signpost, a manifestation of all that day’s hard work.

What impacted your progress? Is it something you can control or change so that you facilitate progress rather than hinder it? Do you notice patterns resulting from your environment or schedule that result in progress or setbacks?

What stood out today and how did that make me feel? 
Feelings play a key role in our motivation levels and how you work, so it’s important to pay attention to them. What was remarkable about the day? Did your co-worker compliment you or did your child say something hilarious? Was a task particularly frustrating to get through? Are you proud by something you did?

What did you do today that you especially want to remember in the future? This question guides you to record and reflect on accomplishments that you can also pull up later for processes like performance evaluations and reviews, or reflective times like a new year or your birthday. The proof of what worked well and what didn’t is in your done list. 

How can I turn negatives into progress tomorrow? Learn from your setbacks and errors. Can you think about ways to improve or make progress tomorrow based on what went wrong today? Address and flip negative feelings into positive fuel for your progress. We aren’t perfect and every single day will not be a good day, but we can create better ones for ourselves in the future based on how we think about the past.

What are three good things about today? 
As you write down what you accomplish, scan for three daily positives to include. Be specific, and think through whether anything helped to make them happen. As you record your good things and exercise daily gratitude, you’ll be better able to sustain a positive feedback loop.

This covers what is on your list, but how you write it is just as important:

Make writing your list a treasured routine.

Some people like to write their dones as a batch at the end of the day before they get ready for bed or when the workday draws to a close. Others prefer to write their dones down as they finish or switch tasks. If you do this, don’t forget to take a look at the end of the day at how much your list has grown. What’s important is that you keep a consistent schedule.

Like any new good habit, it takes time to build up a regular routine. In the beginning of your practice especially, try not to miss any days. Done lists are much like going to the gym — once you get in a groove, it’s easier to stay in it. 

Count your small wins.

Don’t wait until you’ve hit big goals like completing a project or getting a promotion — which happen only occasionally and make it difficult to appreciate small but important advancements. Don’t dismiss all the smaller things that fill out your days and are building up in the long run. 

Even if you don’t finish a project or hit a major milestone, you’ve likely made progress on some aspect, whether it’s a super rough draft or sketching out a plan. Record that and give small steps their due. 


Don’t dismiss all the smaller things that fill out your days and are building up in the long run. 

Experiment as you go.

Unlike the checklists and itemization of to-do lists, you have more freedom in how you choose to write down your dones. The beauty of the done list is that you can make it up as you go.

Jot down whatever you find interesting and notable about what you get done during the day, as well as any thoughts and observations. Done lists are like bite-size diaries, so don’t be afraid to get personal and express yourself. Emotional context and commentary will add value as you reflect and review. Maybe you can puzzle out why your afternoon was unproductive or savor the pleasure of figuring out a bug.

Use whatever methods and styles you prefer. Write in short fragments, bullet points, full paragraphs, or poetry. Be patient, Figuring out what to write down and how in a way that’s effective for you takes time and experimentation — and the way you reflect and grow can also grow and change.

Review regularly to gather self-intelligence.

All that list making means nothing if you don’t take some time to review. Note any productivity patterns, your level of engagement, and your moods. The written proof grants you stronger footing to implement change by providing a road map on specifically what to improve — and importantly — what you’re doing well.

Are you spending time on things that aren’t on your to-do list? Do you get more writing done after dinner? Is there a time of day or week that you’re most productive? Are you always cranky in the early-afternoon?

Eventually you’ll be able to see whether you’re spending time and energy on what really matters to you, whether you’re confusing busywork for actual progress, and proof of how you’re actually prioritizing your day. Learn about yourself and where you’re really expending your energy, improve your planning, and feel happier about what you got and will get done.

This essay was adapted from the ebook “The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List.” Download your copy here.

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Janet Choi

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Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, an incredibly simple way to share your progress with your colleagues at work. She writes about productivity, motivation, and the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Say hi on Twitter @lethargarian or on Google+.
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