Start making Done lists instead of To-do lists

I’ve mentioned ‘done lists‘ before, but as it’s the beginning of the year, I thought it was time to remind you about them.

In January, we open a new calendar, and turn a new page. We look forward to the year ahead and we make plans.

Some of those plans are huge: maybe you want to finish your experiments, or submit your thesis. Some of those plans are statistically improbably: perhaps you are applying for a major ECR grant, or trying to get a tenure track job. Some of those plans are small, but meaningful: I want to get back into make bread more regularly, and to manage an elegant transition from downward facing dog into a lunge.

Making plans is awesome and essential! You might want to try this list of ‘To-do lists that actually work‘, think about how to plan your research days, or the tips in yet another to-do list blog.

However, as reading General Sun reminds me: plans are all very well and good, but if you don’t know how and when to change them, you will fail. 

(This is a significant paraphrase of Chapters 1 and 8 of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War–which is super-short and full of good advice, and therefore worth giving yourself half an hour to read in full.)



So preparing, and making plans, and looking ahead are essential. But how do we know if we have succeeded in our day, or just succeeded ticking things off our to-do list? Is a day where we did lots of important, urgent and valuable things (none of which were in our plans) still a success?

Enter the ‘Done-List’. 

The done-list is super simple. At the end of the day, you look back at what you did. And then you make a list of the things.

And yet, this becomes revolutionary.

  • You notice all the things you actually did in the day.
  • You can celebrate the things you achieved, and share your successes with others.
  • You can get a sense of what you actually can do in a day, or what typically needs doing, thus helping you make better plans for the future.

Lots of people like to write their done list on paper–either at the end of their to-do list, or in a seperate place like a daily journal. Some people use social media as a form of done list–which makes it part of a community.

Evernote recommends the done-list (and would make a good app for them); I found at least one specific app for done-lists.  But back of an envelope would work just as well. Sometimes I just do it in my head as I’m heading to the tram on my way home.


Level up your done-list

One issue with the to-do list is that The checklist format doesn’t work for projects and tasks that are open-ended‘, and that’s just as true of the thesis before you sat down at your desk this morning as when you stood up from your desk this evening. So, just as I’m a fan of some other planning strategies like using generative writing to plan, or planning by chatting; you might want to do your done list as ‘the story of my day’ or by talking your day over with a colleague. 

You don’t have to wait for the end of the day to make your done-list either. I often find it’s best if I make my done list at 3-4pm. About that time I’m having a mid-afternoon slump and need to re-fill my water bottle, get another coffee or have a snack. So it’s the perfect time to review my day: What have I already done? What is urgent or important and needs doing before I go home? Do I need to stay late? Can I go home on time?

Or you could turn your done list into a rewards chart. Last year I did just that. I went to OfficeWorks and bought some awesomely cute stamps and created a print out calendar (I think I made this one in Word).

I decided what a stamp was worth. For example:

  • 30 minutes of exercise (clouds!)
  • Writing 400 words (1 pomodoro, strawberries!)
  • Editing 1000 words (birdie!)
  • Reading an article or chapter (1 pomodoro, panda!)


As you can see, I was working up to the submission of an article (marked by the big star). So the day before we sent it in, I read EVERY word. But you can also see that I was starting on a new project, and so spending some time reading and writing new text. But you’ll also see there were days I didn’t do anything at all towards my research.

It was a really fun way to mark progress. And that’s one of the other things a done-list should do–hit those lovely reward centres in your brain (possibly backed up by other rewards you can eat, or drink, or touch!)


However you use them, done-lists are fantastic and you should put them on your 2019 to-do lists!



Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Listen: sometimes it helps to wish your writing well

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your writing, but there may be difficult feelings there. It can help to move from rehearsing how badly you feel, to articulating a beneficial wish for everything and everyone around you, including yourself. And apply it more specifically to your writing practice. 

Maybe you could dial up the positive talk, to yourself and others. How does that feel? What grace could be experienced?

Read More

Get the latest blog posts