The To Do and Did It Lists

The To Do List is certainly one of the most popular stay-on-your priorities approach for reducing stress and using time effectively. Recently I was asked in an interview: Does the To Do List really work? My immediate response was: yes and no. Yes, it works for some people; no, it does not work for everyone. Yes, it works sometimes; no, it does not work all the time.

The To Do List

The primary principle behind the To Do List technique is that you can view a list of key activities you have decided you must accomplish. This is helpful if you believe that you might forget something or if you need a map to see more clearly which task needs to be performed before another. The writing process can focus, propel, and inspire you.

You will surely have your own way of using your To Do List. As a planning tool, the To Do List allows you to organize items on paper or stickie notes before you begin the actual tasks, avoiding the generally frowned-upon approach of starting in on the first task that meets your hands or eyes. With top priorities in view, you can more often avoid crisis management that demands you put out the fire that burns the hottest or gets closest to the boss.

I often suggest that people write a To Do List and then select the priorities, either by circling or checking items or by creating a second list. The purpose of a To Do List is to simplify life, not complicate it. So, keep it simple. You do not want to add routine tasks or those activities you know you will do without a reminder. Brushing your teeth is very important, but it has no place on a To Do List. On the days that the list of items seems overwhelming, you might find are the days to not create or not refer to the To Do List.

In addition to providing a central place for organizing tasks and recording progress, the To Do List can provide satisfaction when you cross out or check off completed items or crumple up a piece of paper.

The To Do List = The Undone List

When the To Do List is unrealistically long or overly detailed, it can elicit feelings of frustration or overwhelm. After all, those items are the undone deeds that face you. Each one has the potential to discourage or inspire you. Many possibilities sit undone on your shelves, drawers, tables, desks, or in your head. It is, of course, more healthy and fun to let them inspire you than discourage you.

Some people use a To Do List faithfully to organize tasks into categories or to organize papers into piles. Weeks later, though, they might return to the list or pile to find that top priority items were not done at all, only organized.

The To Do List is designed to propel you into accomplishment, not induce guilt or other negative feelings. On those days you need it to propel you, the To Do List can focus your activities. On those days that the list is frustrating, you need another technique or no technique at all. It is up to you to find your balance and to know that each day you may have a different relationship with your To Do List.

I sometimes suggest a client put no more than three items on a To Do List each day, re-naming the list: The Focus List. You can and will do more than three activities, but a shorter list helps you embrace the larger picture. Of course, you have to work with attention to detail, but your vision needs to be broader than the forty-two tasks you will move your hands through. Your Focus List keeps your attention on the key issues that yield satisfaction.

The Did It List

The idea of the Did It List emerged because I work with some clients who feel discouraged about the tasks that they have not completed. Feelings of guilt and frustration lead them to use the not-yet-finished items on the To Do List as a way to show themselves they have procrastinated, wasted time, or been unsuccessful.

If this scenario describes you, write a list at the end of the day of the activities you have accomplished. If you prepare a daily Did It List for three weeks, you will become impressed with your accomplishments. If you and a friend join together to share your Did It Lists with each other, you will be even more deeply empowered. After you feel sufficiently empowered, you might find that the exercise naturally falls away.

The Did It List is not intended to be merely the transfer of the completed items from a To Do List to a new list, although that is a viable way to start a Did It List. However, I think of the Did It List as a new list, started afresh at the end of each day. Perhaps items that did not even make the To Do List appear on the Did It List. Instead of calling it the Did It List, one client calls his an “Accomplishments List” and another calls hers a “Success List.”

Living in the Doing and Being

How you view your lists (or your decision not to write lists) is all important. “To do” can put your consciousness in the present, usually with future results. “Undone” tends to put you in the past feeling guilty. “Done” or “did it” tends to put you in the past or the present, usually feeling positive. My words convey only tendencies, but your feelings about the words you use are all important.

With all this talk about doing, did, done, undone, it is important to remind you to be. You can even use your To Do List to remind yourself, with such items as “Relax” or “Breathe deeply every hour on the hour” or “Meditate.” Or you can write a daily affirmation on the To Do List so that each time you look at the list you are reminded of the affirmation.

What about You?

The question for you is: what about this topic is most empowering, inspiring, and joyous? Remember, the idea for the To Do List is to free you, not put you in bondage. Do you like to look at your accomplishments day by day on a fresh list? Do you like to make lists and see those accomplishments crossed out on the To Do List? Do you like to work without any list at all? Do you feel good about what you need or want to do? Do you feel good about about what you have done?