The Best Solution for Your To-Do List Stress

Ever wonder why to-do lists make you feel so guilty?

Even though to-do lists are useful for keeping track of tasks and for clearing up mental space that’s much-needed for focus, I’ve never felt all that great using one. You get that little rush of satisfaction after crossing something off — which does feel wonderful — but only for a few minutes. Then right onto dealing with the rest of the  ever-growing list of tasks. It’s like battling a Task Monster. Cut off one head just means eight more sprout in its place.

We actually write down too many tasks on our to-do lists and then make ourselves feel bad because anxiety over not getting to everything impairs our motivation to keep moving. This means we’re actually contributing to our own deflated sense of defeat. I’ve even noticed that many incredibly productive people who get an impressive amount of things done still come down really hard on themselves, saying “I didn’t get enough done today.”

A surprisingly effective practice that deals with these undermining feelings is keeping a done list.

When you flip your perspective to reflect and review what you actually got done at the end of the day, you’re looking at real, concrete evidence of productivity rather than thinking about all the should’ve, could’ve, would’ves that so easily weigh down your spirit.

By taking time to write down your “dones”, you gain the same little rush of pleasure that you get when you cross a task off your to-do list. The big difference with a done list is that it encourages you to celebrate all your accomplishments, including those that weren’t initially planned. Think about all the unexpected things that you end up dealing with throughout your day.

So instead of feeling dejected at the end of the day, you’ll gain strength and encouragement from what you got done, which then serves as motivational fuel the next day to continue your productive streak.

What’s more, you’ll have a record of your achievements to look back on to get a motivation boost on those not so great days and a way to learn about how you work. Maybe you’ll notice you’re super productive toward the beginning of the week, so you can change how you go about the end of the week to spend that energy more wisely elsewhere like resting up or connecting with others.

Need a few tips on how to keep a done list to get started?

Do what works for you and express yourself.

Done lists are kind of like bite-size diary entries, so get personal and express your emotions. For example, I keep a group done list at work with my team, and my co-worker’s done list from yesterday included this entry: “we were in The Economist, which is pretty sweet”. It’s not necessarily something she did, but it’s a memorable accomplishment for our team that she wanted to comment on and record.

Balance your to-do lists.

Don’t just turn your done list into your to-do list 2.0 where you’re writing items down instead of crossing them off. The point of done lists are to respond to how your day really went, so it should reflect that instead of a pre-conceived list of tasks. You’ll probably still use to-do lists, but now you can get a balanced perspective. Pay attention to the journey of how your tasks turn into dones.

Get into action mode.

All the items on your to-do lists are not necessarily important. A done list is a great way to transform your mindset into action mode so that you’re making progress toward your goals and priorities.  So recording dones like “did the laundry” or “checked my email” that are so routine and things you should be doing anyway won’t be all that helpful or illuminating for you. Use the done list as a way to work towards what matters most to you.

Be thoughtful.

Spend just a few minutes to reflect back to your day. We hardly pause in these busy times and it’s easy to forget to take a breath and appreciate the day. Plus when you review what you got done and how, you become more aware of how you handle things, which paves the way to make a change for the better or plan better next time.

Do you have experience learning or gaining motivation from keeping track of what you’ve done? I’d love to hear in the comments!

Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest progress management tool around. She writes about productivity, creativity, and motivation on the iDoneThis blog. Follow her on Twitter @lethargarian.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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