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The Art of the Done List: Harnessing the Power of Progress

What did you get done today? Knowing the answer makes a huge difference in your motivation levels.

From carpenters to sculptors, makers end each workday with a physical object looking different than it did that morning. But what if you’re a knowledge worker? How do we know our level of progress when the fruits of our labors can be easily and quickly buried by our next task? 

Maintaining your motivation is a difficult battle, especially when you feel paralyzed by a crushing list of action items and projects that seems longer at the end of each day. The solution? Make a “done list.” Making one is simple:

  1. When you do anything you consider useful, however small a win it may be, write it down on your done list. Alternatively, wait until the end of the day to make your list.
  2. At the end of the day, look over your list. Reflect on and celebrate everything you finished and shipped.
  3. Review regularly — in the mornings to kickstart your day, or every week, month, year, or simply whenever you need a dose of perspective.

The simple act of pausing to reflect and acknowledge your efforts provides valuable boosts of motivation, focus, and insight that would otherwise be lost amidst your busy day. Your done list acts as a signpost, a manifestation of all that day’s hard work. This flips an overwhelmed mindset into action mode to correct course, learn from mistakes, and ultimately make better progress. To start, ask yourself the following questions:

What did you get done today? Simply look back at your day through the lens of accomplishment. Answering this question becomes a quiet act of affirmation and celebration. 

What did I make progress on today? Even on frustrating, seemingly unproductive days, you can almost always find one thing that you moved forward.

Your done list acts as a signpost, a manifestation of all that day’s hard work.

What impacted your progress? Is it something you can control or change so that you facilitate progress rather than hinder it? Do you notice patterns resulting from your environment or schedule that result in progress or setbacks?

What stood out today and how did that make me feel? 
Feelings play a key role in our motivation levels and how you work, so it’s important to pay attention to them. What was remarkable about the day? Did your co-worker compliment you or did your child say something hilarious? Was a task particularly frustrating to get through? Are you proud by something you did?

What did you do today that you especially want to remember in the future? This question guides you to record and reflect on accomplishments that you can also pull up later for processes like performance evaluations and reviews, or reflective times like a new year or your birthday. The proof of what worked well and what didn’t is in your done list. 

How can I turn negatives into progress tomorrow? Learn from your setbacks and errors. Can you think about ways to improve or make progress tomorrow based on what went wrong today? Address and flip negative feelings into positive fuel for your progress. We aren’t perfect and every single day will not be a good day, but we can create better ones for ourselves in the future based on how we think about the past.

What are three good things about today? 
As you write down what you accomplish, scan for three daily positives to include. Be specific, and think through whether anything helped to make them happen. As you record your good things and exercise daily gratitude, you’ll be better able to sustain a positive feedback loop.

This covers what is on your list, but how you write it is just as important:

Make writing your list a treasured routine.

Some people like to write their dones as a batch at the end of the day before they get ready for bed or when the workday draws to a close. Others prefer to write their dones down as they finish or switch tasks. If you do this, don’t forget to take a look at the end of the day at how much your list has grown. What’s important is that you keep a consistent schedule.

Like any new good habit, it takes time to build up a regular routine. In the beginning of your practice especially, try not to miss any days. Done lists are much like going to the gym — once you get in a groove, it’s easier to stay in it. 

Count your small wins.

Don’t wait until you’ve hit big goals like completing a project or getting a promotion — which happen only occasionally and make it difficult to appreciate small but important advancements. Don’t dismiss all the smaller things that fill out your days and are building up in the long run. 

Even if you don’t finish a project or hit a major milestone, you’ve likely made progress on some aspect, whether it’s a super rough draft or sketching out a plan. Record that and give small steps their due. 

Don’t dismiss all the smaller things that fill out your days and are building up in the long run. 

Experiment as you go.

Unlike the checklists and itemization of to-do lists, you have more freedom in how you choose to write down your dones. The beauty of the done list is that you can make it up as you go.

Jot down whatever you find interesting and notable about what you get done during the day, as well as any thoughts and observations. Done lists are like bite-size diaries, so don’t be afraid to get personal and express yourself. Emotional context and commentary will add value as you reflect and review. Maybe you can puzzle out why your afternoon was unproductive or savor the pleasure of figuring out a bug.

Use whatever methods and styles you prefer. Write in short fragments, bullet points, full paragraphs, or poetry. Be patient, Figuring out what to write down and how in a way that’s effective for you takes time and experimentation — and the way you reflect and grow can also grow and change.

Review regularly to gather self-intelligence.

All that list making means nothing if you don’t take some time to review. Note any productivity patterns, your level of engagement, and your moods. The written proof grants you stronger footing to implement change by providing a road map on specifically what to improve — and importantly — what you’re doing well.

Are you spending time on things that aren’t on your to-do list? Do you get more writing done after dinner? Is there a time of day or week that you’re most productive? Are you always cranky in the early-afternoon?

Eventually you’ll be able to see whether you’re spending time and energy on what really matters to you, whether you’re confusing busywork for actual progress, and proof of how you’re actually prioritizing your day. Learn about yourself and where you’re really expending your energy, improve your planning, and feel happier about what you got and will get done.

This essay was adapted from the ebook “The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List.” Download your copy here.

More Posts by Janet Choi

Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.

Comments (23)
  • Mani

    I’m an avid list maker. I love, love, love my lists! I’ve yet to do this, though. Thanks so much for the great idea. I’m going to start today.

    • Janet Choi

      Hooray! Thanks Mani. Let me know how adding a new kind of list to the mix turns out!

  • Nikola Djokovic


    • Janet Choi

      Likewise! Thanks for reading!

  • jmcaddell

    This logging of progress thing is turning into a trend. I like it! No matter what tool you use – iDoneThis,, or pen and paper, it’s a very valuable habit to build. I’ve read a couple of research papers recently that talk about the direct benefit of reflection and gratitude to our performance, and my experience (doing this logging most every weekday for the past 3 years) supports these conclusions.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks! So true. Whatever you use, it’s about finding what works to gain the benefits of the process. Btw I enjoyed your “little data” article here on 99u!

  • Kylli

    These are great points, but i wonder whether it is more efficient to do the done list for a week or a day. It seems that the more we worry about the productivity, engagement, motivation, the more we tend to do lists. I agree that planning and reflecting are absolutely necessary, but we often tend to overdo that.

    • Janet Choi

      Hi Kylli, thanks for reading and your thoughtful comment!

      It definitely comes down to what’s valuable for you and personal preference. Done lists can definitely be made every week or whatever frequency suits you. I just know from experience that it’s hard to remember what I did even the next day, and I have to refer back to my email and notes. (Anyone who has ever fallen behind on time tracking for a job knows that pain!)

      What’s most valuable here is the process — of remembering, thinking, connecting the dots — rather than the list, which serves as a way or nudge to practice that. I actually think reflection is underdone… so I’m all for more time thinking rather than only doing!

  • RemCool

    Janet, I found this article very interesting.

    My friends and coworkers usually deem my list routine as a strange and unnecessary habit. It’s extremely hard for me to make it up as I go, however, as I tend to have a very OCD-like approach to my personal productivity lists. I usually write them by hand (pen/pencil and paper) and my number one motivation is to prevent boss-employee arguments, rather than the eventual personal benefits I could take out from it.

    (Please excuse bad grammar and/or typos, English is not my first language.)

    • Janet Choi

      Thank you for reading (and commenting in English)! Creating a record is a great way to clarify things at work and hopefully you do get some personal benefits even if it’s not your number one motivation!

  • Eric Bouchet

    Thanks Janet for this insight. I did my first “done” list today, happy to realize that I have indeed “achieved” some things today ! Especially like the guiding questions, that help go through the day, highlights key parts and relate to emotions, not just actions.

    • Janet Choi

      Awesome! I hope it becomes a helpful routine for you Eric. It’s so nice to recognize that we do get stuff done and that there’s more to see and learn from our day than we think!

  • Richie

    Stumbling on this blog was like finding a treasure trove of great advice. I love this. Sharing it with my team. Thank you!

    • Janet Choi

      Great, thanks Riche! Hope you check out the ebook for more info. There’s some more about team done lists as well!

  • Tanmay Saxena

    pretty nice to go across this post… thnx for posting janel… just loved it… 🙂

    • Janet Choi

      Wonderful, thank you for reading!

  • dianekns

    Thanks for the reminder. I do have a list I ck at least weekly, but maybe it should be more often.
    D. Knaus

  • Lois DiCicco

    I highly recommend downloading the free e-book. I have found that it’s an easy read loaded with logical reasons why the “done list” works, and why our traditional “to do” lists leave us frustrated. As a chronic list-maker, this information has been the most helpful I’ve found!

    • Janet Choi

      Thank you so much Lois! That means a lot coming from an expert list-maker!

  • Miguel Angel García

    Hay que centrarse en lo importante para nosotros. Reflexionar a través de una lista puede ser un buen método para motivarnos. Un saludo

    • Janet Choi

      Gracias Miguel!

  • Jarod Billingslea

    I have actually tried this unintentionally before. I made my own todo system with Microsoft words, and created a table of todo lists with the time of the day I did a task and was suppose to do a task. And in the end, it worked out well. But my mistake was that summer came and I didn’t really need the list anymore. And then I needed it again the next summer, but I could never figure out why I was so productive as before. But now I know why. It’s that done list that empowers you to move forward somehow. It really does motivate you in ways you’re not conscious about, and ironically, it’s like that saying goes “you never know what you have until it’s gone” haha.

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