Why You Should Throw Away Your To-Do List

I’ve never been good at to-do lists. For me, a to-do list is more a theoretical approach than an actual tool. No matter how many times I’ve tried to put a daily to-do list into practice, it never becomes routine.

They’re too easy to ignore. They nag me only just enough to be annoying, not enough to help me to get stuff done. They put me in a grumpy mood.

Simply put, they don’t give me no satisfaction. I can see that there are just more items to get to, but I know that they’re never really going to stop. Life becomes a big monstrous hydra of tasks, where you cut off one head, cross off one item, and two more pop out.

Keep a “Done List”

Instead of a to-do list, I keep a done list. Every day, when I’m winding down my day, I do a quick mental scan of my day and write down what I got done. It may seem counterintuitive, but it helps me plan out my day, and gets me amped to kick butt and get stuff done.

How can things that are done be a productivity tool and why is this more powerful than a to-do list? It comes down to concreteness. All that stuff on your Done List? They’re done!

It’s a record of real results, not intangible goals or wishful thinking. And those results bring all sorts of positive feelings and energy because you’ve achieved something and you want to keep achieving something. You’ll find yourself riding that motivational wave of positivity to get stuff done the next day and the next and the next.

And if you fall off your board? That’s okay, just catch that next wave.

Keeping a done list helps me be more mindful of the journey from to-do to doing to done and beyond. It forces me to stop and recognize that I do get things done, with or without a to-do list.

It kills that feeling that the whole day whizzed past you in a blur. It allows you to take the time to celebrate your accomplishments and help plan better for future ones. Plus, if you are a fan of to-do lists, a done list is a great way to balance that practice to give you perspective, to connect the dots between your expectations and your results, and in the end, to make better, more effective to-do lists.

4 Simple Techniques for Keeping a Done List

It’s simple. Make sure you do 4 easy things.

1. Allow yourself a few minutes to reflect on your day. Jot down things you got done. Review them. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Repeat.

You’ll start to love thinking about what happened that day, and you’ll realize that you got more done than you might’ve otherwise given yourself credit for. A to-do list only gives you credit for stuff you planned on doing – a done list gives you credit for knocking down all the things that life brings your way.

2. Review a bunch of these and get a wider look at how you’ve progressed in days or weeks or months. Remember that a done list gives you the gift of perspective so that you can see where you’re coming from and better plan for where you think you need to go.

3. Don’t let your to-do tasks, whether they’re down on a page or in your head, dictate too narrowly what you write on your done list. Otherwise, you’re just crossing off an item or checking off a box again in another form. The beauty of the done list is their responsiveness to your actual day, so allow it to reflect a richer variety of things than what you thought you had to get done that day.

4. Strike a balance (that works for you) between general and specific. “I ran” is probably too vague and won’t help you in your reviewing phase. ”I ran 2.5 miles” will probably be much more helpful.

“I did the dishes today” may be too routine of a detail and might mean you’re struggling to put something in the done list just for the sake of it. But if you’re the kind of person who never does the dishes and all your roommates find it very annoying, then maybe “I rinsed dishes and emptied dishwasher” should be on your Done list. It all depends!


Motivation comes less from the tasks and crossing something off than from your inner direction and momentum. It feels more like you’re leading you instead of your list of tasks leading you. If you’re like me and to-do lists don’t work their magic for you, you don’t have to feel like an ugly stepsister of productivity trying to fit into a shoe that doesn’t fit: Try making a done list!

Do you have a to-do list? Or would you prefer working with a to-done list? Tell us in the comments.

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Walter Chen is the founder of iDoneThis, the easiest way to keep a to-done list.


  1. Bojan - Alpha Efficiency on the 3rd February

    I have to add a couple of tips in favor of to do lists. In order for to do lists to work, don’t set any dates on them, make them time free.

    Prioritize 2-3 things for one day! Don’t jam pack your day with huge to do lists. Sometimes your day is sucessful when you complete only one important thing.

    Don’t get overwhelmed by the size of your to do lists, you have a whole life to complete them.

    Don’t put yourself in “you have to do it” mentality.

    Purge your to do lists! Remove all the tasks that aren’t worthy of your time. It’s liberating feeling, do it frequently.

    Those are just a couple of tips, that already make your to do lists more bearable. It’s different approach. It’s sort of a little system that guides your tasks.

  2. Keith Sanvidge on the 3rd February

    Not sure about a to-done list, but I’ve started getting the feeling that a to-do list is not the best way to get things done. I’m not sure what the best system is, or that it exists, but I’ll certainly try your idea. It sounds more like something I would prefer. More like creating a journal I can look back on than creating trash.

  3. Mark on the 3rd February

    Actually, there’s nothing wrong in creating a To-do-list. I may also serves as your “Done-list. Just simply cross out those that you have done.

  4. Mark on the 3rd February

    Actually, there’s nothing wrong in creating a To-do-list. It may also serves as your “Done-list”. Just simply cross out those that you have done.

  5. Micah on the 3rd February

    Honestly, I prefer a to-do list. The major problem for me has been finding an app that handles it well. Currently I’m pretty hooked on workflowy.

    I think a lot of the reason that to-do lists get ignored is because we lack the knowledge to break things down into managable chunks and the self-discipline to actually tackle them. If I didn’t have my To-Do list to keep me on track, then my Done list would have only, “Played Portal” or “Read all of Work Awesome”. 🙂

  6. Josh Jones on the 3rd February

    I use my todo list a lot but I’m not glued to it. It’s more of a reminder list. It’s not too long and most of the items on the list I can put off for a few days or more.

    Totally getting rid of that would really mess up my workflow.

  7. Freddy Rodriguez on the 3rd February

    Thanks for that interesting writeup Walter. I’ve found that, without recognizing it, I’ve been finishing my days too with a “done list”. I’ve never been one for a to-do list. Good thing I’m not alone.

  8. Vinay Kumar on the 3rd February

    Atleast it works for me, surprisingly same thing I realized today but finishing couple of task (it was more on building my websites) and seeing my self moving ahead compare to my past where I use to prepare TODO list at the start of my week and with nothing done by end of week 🙁 .. very realistic article..Thanks,

  9. Liska Liska on the 3rd February

    I love my to do lists! I have 3-5 priority tasks then another 3-5 “extra” tasks. Anything done beyond priority tasks are my icing on the cake.

    But this to done list is intriguing…giving it a try tomorrow

  10. Daniel Puglisi on the 5th February

    I think you should have a combination of a todo list and a done list. With the todo list I can see my daily goals and I’ve only 1-3 important tasks I want to do on one day. The rest of the task are just nice to have. But I do also other stuff that’s no on the list and when I’m finished with these ask, I simply add it to the todo list as a finished task.

    This helps me to keep track of my task I want todo, and the task I have done.

    At the moment I’m working with Evernote. From all the tools I’ve used, I think it’s the best one.

  11. stephanie on the 5th February

    i don’t understand why walter thinks we should have one or the other – why can’t we have some form of both? i think a to do list serves a very different purpose to a done list – one is to keep track of the things you have to do and the other is to keep us motivated and show us what we’ve achieved in the day. i don’t know about the type of jobs you have, but if i didn’t have a to do list to write down everything i think of to do or am asked to do, i would forget to do a lot of them and/or feel under incredible pressure to keep all my tasks in my head. i don’t know about you lot but i like to keep my brain free for useful things like thinking and being creative and achieving things and dreaming, not for storing tasks. i use my to do list as a brain dump and feel the better for it. i know i need to get better at reflecting on my day and feeling pleased about my achievements so having some sort of done list sounds very positive.

    i think we all need to be careful not to waste energy chasing the ultimate system for productivity and instead accept that we’re all different and work in different ways, and we probably need to adopt a bit of this, a bit of that, a pinch of the other, to make it work for each individual. what will work for walter won’t work for me and what works for me will send walter over the edge.

    anyway…happy achieving!

  12. Joel Cheuoua on the 5th February

    “Done list” are a great booster of confidence, and I’m sure that helps. I’m however also sure that just trashing To-dos is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    How about addressing the real problem: Procrastination.

    The To-do list itself didn’t cause that. Fear, laziness, distraction, lack of motivation & lack of confidence and probably other factors are all causing that. Making a “Done list” only addresses one aspect of it (confidence), and not even in its entirety.

    The problem with dropping the To-do list altogether, IMHO, is that you’re breaking a fundamental block that you need to address the other aspects.

    For example, If you lack motivation or if you can be easily distracted by things that are not in your To-do list, maybe those things should actually be there. Maybe your priorities should be revisited.

    If you know that you really, want and are really motivated by something that you’re not doing, maybe you should then try to identify whether you’re afraid of tackling the task because it’s too big => search for help.

    In short, I do believe that even though completely imperfect and not easy, To-dos are still a fundamental starting block for having a more efficient and organized life routine.

  13. Sara on the 6th February

    Having a TO DONE list is a great tool along with having an actionable system for to-do’s. It’s somewhat dangerous to assume that everyone can operate in the same way – I coach and train thousands of people on productivity and have seen hundreds of ways this is done – nobody does it the same and just having one list (a to done list) wouldn’t work for the majority of the population. If it works for some that’s great and I do love the idea of it but most people need direction in their day and better they need it set up the night before their day starts. Great article and conversation!

  14. Vinod on the 10th February

    Although, it is quite cumbersome, it is very important to have a to-do list because you could simply forget a whole bunch of things.
    It is upto the person to either have a daily list of things or a generic/master list of things.

    It does give a -ve feeling quite often but breaking down them to actionable tasks is the key..
    For ex. Plan for higher education is such a generic task
    Split would look like:
    + Spend time on internet to get top 20 colleges
    + check with friends
    + Review available options with a mentor/course counsellor

    It’s not easy esp. for ppl like me who are heavily into procrastination 🙂


  15. ann on the 15th February

    I’m 100% with Vinod on this one…working in management for several years in the UK made me vehement about the SMART rule (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound – among other similar variations…this one works for me). One of the most important reasons for having a to-do list to begin with is ticking things off, so I get the message behind the to-done list, but it just wouldn’t work for me.

    I know there are all sorts of app’s out there – for me a simple word doc with a homemade table suffices. I break it down into three sections: today, tomorrow, and this week. If I have something to do today and I know it ain’t gonna happen, I just cut and paste it onto tomorrow. Guilt gone. One kinda anal thing I do is break my day down into times. I estimate how long something will take me – I’m not always right – and then I know if I’m actually going to get to all the things I’ve planned or if I’m way behind…but I also know if I’m way ahead!

    I also think, particularly if you work from home, incorporating non-work goals (laundry, exercise, overdue emails/calls to friends and family) can make their way onto that list as well. It’s just too good to tick ’em off!


  16. Aparna on the 16th February

    A to-do list works, for me. As mentioned above, it also serves as a “done” list. A to-do list is based on the goals that I have set for myself. I also have a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly to do list. I have in fact, breaken down my goals into smaller chunks and it gives me a sense of accomplishment when I strike down the tasks that I have completed on a day.

    I also maintain a journal where in I key in the points that I would like to reflect on the day. It also serves as a sense of learning about myself.

  17. Vasu on the 18th February

    Great article. I didn’t realize I have been practicing the Done list method (I call it a status report) by using an iOS App that I created for my use (and later put it on sale of course!).

    I have a hard time with To-Do lists too and since I’m in the technology sector (software etc.) I like to track project items @ a weekly granularity instead of daily granularity. Also, my company uses work weeks quite a bit and I didn’t find any application that provided a simple journal capability on a weekly granularity.

    So, I wrote my own app called WWCal (http://www.haviga.com/iOS-Apps/wwcal) to use for this purpose. The neat thing about this app is that I can now relate my work to my boss/upper management easily on a weekly/monthly basis since I have the journal capturing all my important weekly activities.

    Do check out the app if you are interested and do send me a note if you find it useful/or have suggestions for improvements.

  18. HP van Duuren on the 24th February

    ‘Thanks so much
    for your post Walter Chen,’

    At the start of the New Year, January 2012 I wrote a post titled:
    ‘What Happened in 2011’ and just listed a few things that I have done in 2011, and it makes me feel so a more Motivated, while when I look at to-do lists it feels
    more like being a slave of the list that never seems to end,
    making me think:

    ‘Can’t it Stop’ while with a Done-list it’s just exciting
    and motivating to see and making me think:
    ‘Bring it on,
    I can’t wait to make an improvement here and there….,
    and there, etc. etc.’

    With a Done List you feel more in control, like a Painter giving colors to a skets of an image, constantly making the image more attractive, while with a
    To-do list it feels more like you’re just ‘Bussy’ with only giving color to some minor meaningless details without being able to see the whole Painting.

  19. JC on the 24th February

    Well, I disagree with your point of view, however I am a firmly supporter of using any method that works for yourself. If it´s ok for you, that´s good enough.

    Just to give you my perspective, what you are doing is to waste some time in seeing what you had done. My personal question at the end of the day is if I advanced to my own goals, and any task I did to accomplish that helps my purpose.

    The To-Do List have the power of showing you the reality of your things to do. You can ignore it, and take decisions without any consideration to it. However, at certain amount of activity, playing the game that way can make you pass something you shouldn´t.

    To manage the reality is hard sometimes, but as Dr. House says “It´s much better to know”.

    Best Regards

    Twitter: @ComoMeOrganizo
    Ultima Nota: Actitud – Cerrar los Temas Pendientes

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