Do vs. Done Lists: Jot Down Your Small Wins to Amplify Success

Written by Valerie Bisharat on April 12, 2017. Originally published on the Evernote blog.

If you’re reading the Evernote Blog, chances are you’re someone who loves to get things done. To move the needle.

But have you ever had the suspicion that the way you’re approaching your to-do list and overall task planning is hindering your effectiveness? Perhaps your processes are increasing stress or anxiety (known disruptors to problem-solving) and clouding your creative thought.

The power of progress

It’s interesting to note that according to research, having a sense of making progress with work that matters to us is the most influential factor in maximizing long-term creative output, positive emotions, and motivation. The problem is, for some of us, focusing on what’s next (for example: our to-do lists) means we skate right past our wins, no matter how big or small they are. How do we train ourselves, over time, to notice progress? We already keep a to-do list. Why not add a done list?

A done list is a log of the tasks you’ve completed. Keeping a done list has the power to fortify your motivation, and heighten positive emotions like joy and pride. They can make creative productivity more sustainable by helping you experience a sense of progress for work that matters to you.

Success leaves clues

Renowned entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, cheekily calls it the “Anti To-Do List.” For years, Google had a process called “Snippets,” which caught fire at companies like FourSquare, Buzzfeed and Shopify. Snippets is the process companies use to gather what employees have accomplished and are working on, typically on a weekly basis. They them make that information internally public so any team member can see what’s happening in other departments. In the case of FourSquare, employees even provide feedback to CEO Dennis Crowley on his Snippets.

All of these systems refer to the process of reflecting and writing down what you’ve done. Creating a list of done items has the almost magical effect of amplifying motivation and productivity at tasks that matter. How amazing would it feel to end each day focusing on your accomplishments, rather than the never-ending mountain of tasks waiting for you come morning?

When we reflect on progress, we practically metabolize it. Jot down completed tasks, and view them as “wins,” or progress towards your final goal(s), and you can externalize and recognize them. ” Writing, like speaking, requires translating thoughts into words, which externalizes those thoughts and allows us to see them for what they are so we can move forward. Clarity affords possibility.

In the process of reviewing and writing down our work, we also often unearth learnings that went unnoticed in real time. Hindsight is 20/20. Looking in retrospect at a completed project allows us to see it within a larger context. We can quickly and more accurately analyze why particular aspects were challenging and the ways in which we succeeded, then apply that awareness to future tasks. For example, if you felt you had a stressful week, you might make this list and notice that your attention was split between too many projects. In the following weeks, you could use new-found knowledge that awareness to reverse-engineer your days to focus on one major project at a time.

Let momentum do part of the work

If you’re planning strategically, meaning you’ve laid out the items on your to-do list comprehensively to achieve particular ends, accomplishing a discrete task or set of related tasks is a “win.” Researchers have long noted the particular power of the small win, which organizational psychologist Karl Weick defines as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.”

Weick shows that small wins have power beyond themselves. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win,” Weick explained. “When a solution is put in place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible.”

If reflecting on our wins makes them seem more “real,” and small wins help generate more and often larger wins, the least we can do is write down our accomplishments, right?

The link between wins, emotion, and motivation

Wins also heighten positive emotions and intrinsic motivation, which result in more creative productivity.

In The Progress Principle, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer analyzed over 12,000 journal entries written by 238 company employees. They discovered that on days when employees experienced progress, they reported positive emotions like joy and pride. We’re more productive when we’re happy. In other words, positive emotion is a win for everyone.

In their research, Amabile and Kramer discovered something fascinating: contrary to the commonly held belief that negative pressure creates better performance, on “progress days,” people were more intrinsically motivated. In other words, on days when employees felt progress and the positive emotions that come with that, they were more inspired to work based on interest in the work itself rather than by extrinsic sources like praise and encouragement. On “setback days,” though, people were both less intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.

Given that we can’t always control external sources of motivation, like recognition from our boss, family and peers, drawing from our internal well of motivation by recognizing wins is a success strategy. The done list means that we can create motivation no matter where we find ourselves or what’s happening around us.

How to implement done list psychology

Keeping a done list in addition to your to-do list is a quick and simple way to increase success and well-being. How do you create these lists in a way that fits your needs?

Here are some approaches to try:

  • Every Friday, set aside 10 minutes to jot down your wins for the week. If it’s helpful and relevant, after each task you complete, write any learnings or changes you’d like to implement in the future. Research suggests that handwriting activates different, critical areas of the brain than typing.
  • Keep a done list for each project you work on. This can help you experience a sense of progress at a discrete goal, especially one that feels hairy or overwhelming.
  • Encourage any teams you manage or work with to periodically discuss progress. This could mean starting meetings by having each team member share their recent wins — what they’ve done — or asking people to email their points of progress to their relevant managers.

How do you recognize your progress for maximum results? Share your thoughts in the comments below.