Prepare a Very Worthwhile Summer

By Re-Wiring Your Brain Using Have-Done Lists

Have-done lists are simple-but-powerful lists of objectives. I’ve used have-done lists to replace to-dos, bigger goal setting, and everything in the middle. They’re especially useful when I need help knowing what to say yes to, what to say no to, what to put first, what to put last. I use them to re-wire my own brain to make the right choice about what’s coming up.

Let’s see if we can apply it to preparing for a worthwhile summer. Follow along with your own summer plans and any note-taking app that lets you indent stuff.


I’m preparing for the summer, and I know I won’t get to do everything I’ve hoped for. My first instinct: list everything I want and hope and think of.

That’s a good first take. I park it, and a few minutes later, I attempt to write the list from scratch again. I do this so I can see what my brain thinks is most important (because it comes up naturally on a fresh new take), and I do this to see if I can think of anything new.

Sweet, it worked. I found new things to add.

Now, let’s find a way to fit all this in the months of summer. To do this, I want to turn this list from a wish-list to a have-done (“I’ll have done”) list.

A have-done list is simply a specially-worded title (Before…, I’ll have), with statements starting with specially-worded verbs (Gone instead of Go).

Re-writing the list with a new title, and a new tense for the verbs

And let’s add a few more items from the first take.

Added three items from the first take

That new title and those statements make me pretend as if I’m at the end of the summer, and I’m looking back on what I have done. All of a sudden, this forces me to want to make the list ring true by re-organizing the list. That’s the ingenious side-effect of using this precise wording.

So to make the list feel right, to fix it so it’ll be true at the end of the summer, we ask ourselves a few questions, starting with the most important one.

The most important question

I can’t predict the future (nor am I making a plan), but I can imagine statements that describe a version of the truth that I’m attracted to. It could be an ideal, a picture of goodness, something more deeply felt than my urgent fear of wasting an opportunity.

With that in mind, let’s pretend that I’m at the end of the summer and I have had a stunning, deeply satisfying summer. Here’s the key question: What exactly am I celebrating having accomplished?

No changes from the previous image (except there’s nothing highlighted)

Not one item in the list jumps out at me (because there are too many I want to say I’ll have celebrated). However, I know that they are all means to different ends. And so, I add some more abstract statements to the list:

It feels like some of these statements could fit beneath these new statements. “To say that I’ll have had some quality time as a family, I’ll have… Gone to see the family up north.” So I swoop (indent) some items under these new items.

Moved the old statements under these new more abstract statements

And now, I ask the question again: Out of those five main statements that remain, which one will I be celebrating I’ll have done by the end of the summer, more than the others? In the end, they are all about helping my kids grow. Let’s re-shape the list:

But, in the end, the summer will be about making sure each of us takes the opportunity to grow. Furthermore, building memories fits under having had some quality time as a family. Let’s rewrite/re-order.

Now, I’m not satisfied. I could stop here, but I’m picky and I have a few more questions:

  • What does watching my son’s soccer practice have to do with growing, and why would it be at the top? That’s because it’s about keeping commitments as a family, our commitment to our son, and his commitment to the team. Let’s indent that under a new statement (see the next picture below).
  • In contrast to keeping our commitments, what’s the point of the other three? It’s about going further than just keeping commitments. This summer’s going to be about investing in each other.

You see how I pay a special importance to writing. I invest this energy so I can align my decisions to my intentions. I know when it’s off, and I know when it’s right. It’s not quite right yet.

We’re going to go up North, and that’s going to be about building memories too. In fact, quality time, for me, is about building good memories. So let’s tidy up a bit.

The Sharpest Question

Now for the sharpest question. I’ll ask myself this question under each list, at each level. It’ll help me test whether I’m honest with myself about the importance of each item, or whether I have a wish that’s not connected with reality.

First, here’s the list we have so far (with nothing moving):

The list we have so far

And here’s the question: If all the other things on the list were not done this summer, and only one thing was done, what would that one thing be?

  • Between Ensured we kept our commitments and Invested in each other: Option A is we’ll have kept commitments but not invested in each other, and Option B is we’ll have invested in each other but not kept our commitments. Option A it is. No change. (See the idea?)
  • Under Invested in each other: If I only picked one of the three statements and none of the other two (the other two are delayed until the fall), which one should I pick? Family memories beats the other two. So far so good.
  • Under Built some memories as a family: Family up North, that’s for sure. Let’s consider the rest of the list with the same question. What can’t be delayed until the fall? Time off next to a lake, that’s for sure. Same thing going down.
  • Under Connected with my kids and my wife individually: Small tweak. I’ll have gone hiking with my son, even if that means I won’t have gone camping with my eldest daughter. It’s a tough call, but that’s the order in which it’s going to land this summer.

So here’s the final list. I’ve used these to make tough calls, determine the real reason why we’ll be doing each of these things, and it feels like the sort of summer that will be good for everyone.

The final list

Notice how they’re not ordered by sequence, but by centrality. Each sub-list goes from very central/very true by the end of the summer to least central/least true by the end of the summer. It’s about re-wiring my brain, not about planning a sequence.

To help with the sequence, here’s my trick: I make new have-done lists with their own timelines and under which I’ll transfer these statements or write new ones. Lists like Before my two-week vacation in July, I’ll have, and Before the end of my two weeks off, I’ll have.

So that’s all there is to it: a couple key questions, a note-taking app that indents, and your insistance on creating a list that rings true.

Have a great summer!


Do you want to take this trick further? Imagine what it’s like to use it to prepare for an important meeting with your boss, or what it’s like to use it to prepare for having a super impactful day, or what’s it like to use it to organize the overwhelming life of a parent with a house and and a job and a tendency to want to do everything right? Those are situations we see in The Objectives Course. We go through and expand the subtleties of these questions and these techniques on more of these real-life situations, and you get individual coaching from me so you get feedback on writing these lists. By the end of the course, you’ll have turned these subtle tricks into instincts, as if you’ll have learned a new language. Check it out or pass the word.

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