"Done" lists are better than "to-do" lists


Todo lists and their variants are massively popular, for a variety of reasons. But their popularity hides a number of persistent and consistent issues.

Humans enjoy creating lists. Humans particularly enjoy creating todo lists, because it seems to alleviate the Zeigarnik effect: unfinished tasks persist in the mind, and when completed they vanish. Consider a waiter who can remember an order, up until the order is completed and they forget it entirely to take the next order.

Todo lists are inadequate for actually getting things done. One startup that began as a DONE list, IDoneThis, discovered that adding a todo list resulted in users completing fewer tasks.[1]

The long term outcome of a list that is emptied slower than it is filled, is that todo-lists become doom piles, or even "lists of shame". As the name implies, this causes anxiety, even Impostor syndrome from a growing belief that they are not productive.

By contrast, a "done" list is a growing pile of accomplishment. It becomes a useful resource in future document writing, in performance reviews. In conjunction with another strategy such as a scratch pad or Time blocking, can avoid the drawbacks of todo lists while being just as or even more productive.

Some people still need to-do lists

Todo lists are still necessary - particularly for workers who are prone to distraction, such as remote workers, and those with ADHD.

Other alternatives

The Ivy Lee Method, a prioritised to-do list with a maximum of 6 items

Interstitial journaling, very similar to a DONE list in that you simply write what you've been doing every chance you get

  1. Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t
    Clive Thompson ‧ 2021 July 27 ‧ WIRED Magazine ↩︎