Tips & Stories

Do vs. Done Lists: Jot Down Your Small Wins to Amplify Success

Do vs. Done Lists: Jot Down Your Small Wins to Amplify Success

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 12 Apr 2017

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 12 Apr 2017

If you’re reading the Evernote Blog, chances are you’re someone who loves to get things done. To move the needle.

But have you ever had the suspicion that the way you’re approaching your to-do list and overall task planning is hindering your effectiveness? Perhaps your processes are increasing stress or anxiety (known disruptors to problem-solving) and clouding your creative thought.  

The power of progress

It’s interesting to note that according to research, having a sense of making progress with work that matters to us is the most influential factor in maximizing long-term creative output, positive emotions, and motivation. The problem is, for some of us, focusing on what’s next (for example: our to-do lists) means we skate right past our wins, no matter how big or small they are. How do we train ourselves, over time, to notice progress? We already keep a to-do list. Why not add a done list?

A done list is a log of the tasks you’ve completed. Keeping a done list has the power to fortify your motivation, and heighten positive emotions like joy and pride. They can make creative productivity more sustainable by helping you experience a sense of progress for work that matters to you.

Success leaves clues

Renowned entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, cheekily calls it the “Anti To-Do List.” For years, Google had a process called “Snippets,” which caught fire at companies like FourSquare, Buzzfeed and Shopify. Snippets is the process companies use to gather what employees have accomplished and are working on, typically on a weekly basis. They them make that information internally public so any team member can see what’s happening in other departments. In the case of FourSquare, employees even provide feedback to CEO Dennis Crowley on his Snippets.

All of these systems refer to the process of reflecting and writing down what you’ve done. Creating a list of done items has the almost magical effect of amplifying motivation and productivity at tasks that matter. How amazing would it feel to end each day focusing on your accomplishments, rather than the never-ending mountain of tasks waiting for you come morning?

When we reflect on progress, we practically metabolize it. Jot down completed tasks, and view them as “wins,” or progress towards your final goal(s), and you can externalize and recognize them. ” Writing, like speaking, requires translating thoughts into words, which externalizes those thoughts and allows us to see them for what they are so we can move forward. Clarity affords possibility.

In the process of reviewing and writing down our work, we also often unearth learnings that went unnoticed in real time. Hindsight is 20/20. Looking in retrospect at a completed project allows us to see it within a larger context. We can quickly and more accurately analyze why particular aspects were challenging and the ways in which we succeeded, then apply that awareness to future tasks. For example, if you felt you had a stressful week, you might make this list and notice that your attention was split between too many projects. In the following weeks, you could use new-found knowledge that awareness to reverse-engineer your days to focus on one major project at a time.

Let momentum do part of the work

If you’re planning strategically, meaning you’ve laid out the items on your to-do list comprehensively to achieve particular ends, accomplishing a discrete task or set of related tasks is a “win.” Researchers have long noted the particular power of the small win, which organizational psychologist Karl Weick defines as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.”

Weick shows that small wins have power beyond themselves. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win,” Weick explained. “When a solution is put in place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible.”

If reflecting on our wins makes them seem more “real,” and small wins help generate more and often larger wins, the least we can do is write down our accomplishments, right?

The link between wins, emotion, and motivation

Wins also heighten positive emotions and intrinsic motivation, which result in more creative productivity.

In The Progress Principle, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer analyzed  over 12,000 journal entries written by 238 company employees. They discovered that on days when employees experienced progress, they reported positive emotions like joy and pride. We’re more productive when we’re happy. In other words, positive emotion is a win for everyone.

In their research, Amabile and Kramer discovered something fascinating: contrary to the commonly held belief that negative pressure creates better performance, on “progress days,” people were more intrinsically motivated. In other words, on days when employees felt progress and the positive emotions that come with that, they were more inspired to work based on interest in the work itself rather than by extrinsic sources like praise and encouragement. On “setback days,” though, people were both less intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.

Given that we can’t always control external sources of motivation, like recognition from our boss, family and peers, drawing from our internal well of motivation by recognizing wins is a success strategy. The done list means that we can create motivation no matter where we find ourselves or what’s happening around us.

How to implement done list psychology

Keeping a done list in addition to your to-do list is a quick and simple way to increase success and well-being. How do you create these lists in a way that fits your needs?

Here are some approaches to try:

  • Every Friday, set aside 10 minutes to jot down your wins for the week. If it’s helpful and relevant, after each task you complete, write any learnings or changes you’d like to implement in the future. Research suggests that handwriting activates different, critical areas of the brain than typing.
  • Keep a done list for each project you work on. This can help you experience a sense of progress at a discrete goal, especially one that feels hairy or overwhelming.
  • Encourage any teams you manage or work with to periodically discuss progress. This could mean starting meetings by having each team member share their recent wins – what they’ve done – or asking people to email their points of progress to their relevant managers.

How do you recognize your progress for maximum results? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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30 Comments RSS

  • zdaniels22

    I completely agree, I also believe it works on an even smaller level. Especially if you are having issues focusing or if say you’re depressed or dealing with another mental health condition. I have long wondered why Evernote doesn’t have a feature similar to Wunderlist’s myriad of lists features. I also do not understand why Google and Amazon are trying to “re-invent the wheel”, so to speak with their integrated lists for Alexa and Google Home. I use Evernote all the time, but if it comes to lists, nothing beats the simplicity of Wunderlist (and no, I’m not sponsored or employed by them, I just really like the product). You can make lists for multiple projects, life events, or even as simple as a shopping list – you can share & collaborate depending on the version you choose. They give you the option to view the items you’ve completed also which as mentioned above, some days really is what I need to help take a step when I’ve been stymied all day. I would LOVE it if one product embraced all the features instead of needing two different organizational products and yes, I am an organization junkie. I don’t think a study was needed to figure this out, but if it gets some companies to make positive changes, Woo Hoo!

    • Mallory Day

      I completely agree. Hsve tried numerous organizational apps and have also settled on Evernote and Wunderlist. Would love to see the utility of both in a single app.

      • John Manderson

        I agree 100% although I hate the look of Wunderlist (just do) Evernote and Wunderlist are my go to organizational apps for years across 4 companies.

    • KWisner

      I love Wunderlist, but what scares me about it is its longevity. I don’t see how they make money, and so all of my lists will disappear if Wunderlist just up and disappears one day. Then I will have to start from scratch with Evernote or some other app. You have to sign in to Wunderlist in order to use your lists. If Wunderlist just up and disappears, apparently all of your to-do lists and projects lists would disappear right along with it. I wish I could have more faith in Wunderlist’s longevity.

    • Gordy Mack

      With Google having purchased Wunder and shutting Wunderlist down soon, there is a BIG need for Evernote to scoop up some new employees and implement a to-do structure like Wunderlist, which I also use along with Evernote—boy, how I wish they could talk to each other!!

    • Stranpdx

      My sentiments as well! It would be nice to have a single app. I love Evernote but find that the list features are not robust enough. For example, it would be great to have the ability to create a list to which one could add sub items/next actions and recurring items. Thanks!

    • Doug Sheridian

      After a lot of trials, I too now use Wunderlist for my lists and Evernote for just everything else. Interesting that others have settled on the same.

    • zdaniels22

      I also agree with the concerns of Wunderlist being purchased and eventually dissipated altogether into some unknown brand centric product that does not necessarily contain all the well loved and oft used components that make Wunderlist so great for lists.
      I would much rather see someone like Evernote add those characteristics. The next phase would be to offer them as options for use with all AI units. You wouldn’t have to choose between Google or Microsoft or Amazon, etc.
      Of course, maybe it’s just an unrealistic dream.

  • Jackie

    This was so helpful. Loved the recommendation for learning how to recognize progress as a means to stay motivated. As someone with pretty severe adult ADD I’m always struggling to keep myself organized, and so far Evernote is the best tool I’ve found.

  • Mike Morgillo

    Totally agree about recognizing progress. Thank you so much for this article.

  • BABarn

    When I use evernote as a “To-Do” list, I typically apply a tag to it entitled “Open”, which I remove once I complete the task(s) on the note.

    How do others handle this within Evernote?

  • Kara

    YES! More articles like this, please, Evernote. After 7 years of supporting frazzled, Type-A women, two things have happened. One, I’ve witnessed how much they abuse themselves using their task lists and what that can do to their physical and mental health. Two, it’s inspired me to collect 33K handwritten task lists from women to make some art and help change the conversation on stress, obligation, and desire.

  • Scott Badenoch

    How about: An app in Evernote that automatically converts To Do items to Done list, and requests feelings, comments, etc, that automatically provide a feedback loop to the factors that work for you? As a business CEO, I would like to have such a list rolled-up to me and the organization on a daily basis.

  • Stuart Whitmore

    I started using Done lists several years ago and quickly saw the value in it. When you have a lot to wade through and can be busy all day yet still end up with a long unfinished to-do list, being able to see where the time went helps a lot.

    Lately I’ve sort of over-automated this; when I check off things in Todoist, the completed task is added to a Google Sheets spreadsheet, which is the closest thing I can manage to a journal. (That insertion is handled by IFTTT.) Unfortunately it’s too easy to miss the value of seeing what I’ve done, so I try to take a peek at the completed-tasks display in Todoist each evening to see what was accomplished during the day.

  • Mark

    To Do Lists can paralyze an individual or group productivity, especially when items are checked off but additional ones are added on. It becomes a mountain. Small victories make for a better work attitude and productivity. Not saying that To Do Lists don’t have a place they just need to be done in a way that at the end of the day there is victory rather than defeat. Some days we are lucky to accomplish one item on our list but that is still forward progress. Writing down what has been done is a great way to celebrate the end of a day or week.

  • Robyn

    thanks for this article. I have never thought of listing completed things rather than only “To Do” things and I think its a great concept which I will implement. I have also never heard of Wunderlist which sounds great too so thanks also goes to the commentators who mentioned that!

  • Steve Bivans

    Love the idea! Just wondering if you could talk more about how our TO DO list relates to the DONE list?
    I create what I call GET TO DO LISTS on Evernote all the time, with checkboxes to check them off, but how does checking them off on the to do list differ from a DONE list? Would you set them up side by side?
    I often add stuff to my to do list, after I’ve completed them, just to keep track of all the little crap I actually accomplish during the day, since many times it’s difficult or impossible to check off the major stuff.

  • Davis

    Agree with the sentiments, but never understood why the list features in Evernote are so poor. Even a simple capability that would let you create and sort a list, and mark important items, would be really useful.

  • Stef

    Use the Evernote – Wunderlist combo as well for many years after trying out many different apps. With regard to the ‘brain candy’ as suggested in the article…. the epiphany of that is a HAND WRITTEN To-Do list for the day (with little squares as check boxes in front of each To-Do) and have that on your desk visible all the time. After each task done, take a pencil and first mark the check box in front of it. THEN strike through the To-Do description many times. The physical aspect of this action enlarges the power of concentrating on DONE rather then focussing on the stressful list of To Do….

  • DW

    Since this is the Evernote blog, there should be a button to save these articles easily without installing clipper.

  • Marjory Harris

    I agree. I used check boxes in my master not
    es to show progress.

  • Carlos

    Interesting insight. I will begin to implement this process as I feel like I have hit plateaus’ many times. And, a good time to break out of my slump.
    Thanks for the interesting article.

  • Cindy Hauffe

    I like to use a calendar on my iPad mini to track my tasks for the week. I use ‘calendar skin’ to list each item for each day. You can color code them in whatever way suits you. It is quick & easy. Then as I complete each task for the day, I change them all to a particular color I like. This helps me visually access what is done & what remains at a glance. Plus it is easy enough to implement changes as the need arises. I can even view things on a daily, monthly or yearly setting! It makes scheduling fun:)

  • Roger

    For personal (non-work) stuff, I use a simple To-do list in Evernote which turns into a Done list. I have one named for each weekend, e.g. “17-04-28 To Do”. I use the Checkbox feature, which works kind of like bullets: if you start a checkbox list and hit Return at the end, it automatically adds a checkbox at the beginning of the next line. I find it’s easier to compose on my computer, and then it’s easy to refer to and check off on my phone or tablet.

    Each week I edit the list and cut-paste all completed lines to the bottom, leaving the undone items at the top. Then I copy the note and change the date to the next week. I add new items during the week, or at least by late in the week so I’m ready for the next weekend. As mentioned in the article, it’s good to capture Done items, so sometimes I add recently-completed tasks as I’m preparing the next list. By saving a new dated note each week, I can search to see when things got done.

    I’d like to categorize my items, but currently tables don’t work very well on IOS, so editing is easiest on my computer, so I keep it as a simple list for now.

  • Ram Mohan Rao

    Completely agree. It is a powerful tool to plan the day and the activities. Life is all about Planning to make things happen in this chaotic and busy life.
    Even small wins bring the cheer and motivation needed to move on.

  • omer

    I really like this idea. It’s used in coaching and positive psychology.
    The question rises-
    why don’t you – EVERNOTE- implement it in the app?

    1. Each CHECKED line will get a line crossing it and making it a little lighter in color to be less visible in that note, and then:
    2. Automatically copy that line to a designated note that the user sets in advance, or a general DONE list.
    In the general done list, you could include a little EXPAND button next to the done item to explain when note it came from, and the user can add description about it and lessons for the future.
    Most people have a hard time having to do this alone, especially if its not a habit.
    You can help people of being reminded of there dones.
    I think thats one of the main purposes of evernote- helping people get productive. That’s the pillar of productivness- seeing our own productiveness automatically. After all, we’re not a computer.
    But the evernote app is 🙂

  • Ken Hooper

    I found the following statement interesting, “If it’s helpful and relevant, after each task you complete, write any learnings or changes you’d like to implement in the future. Research suggests that handwriting activates different, critical areas of the brain than typing.” When I want to be creative, I have felt I do much better with pencil and paper than a key board.
    Also, rely heavily on Evernote for record keeping and use Wunderlist for to do lists and aNote for casual temporary notes.
    In fact I have three Evernote accounts. Wish I could switch between accounts without signing out and signing in.

  • Mark

    Done feels pretty good!
    It aligns very well to one of the main gems I like about working in an Agile framework; people get to experience actually getting “done” with things on a very regular basis, instead of waiting months (or not at all) to actually experience the completion of their work, i.e., see the fruits of their labor. Little wins mean a whole lot and they should be routinely celebrated. The world is not a zero-sum place; when some win, all can win. I hope this is becoming the culture in more organizations…it is hidden dynamite that must be detonated to blow away old stifling ideas and silos and usher in new collaboration, transparency and honesty…and more satisfied and dare I say, “happy” employees.

  • Les Plack

    I created a “done” list a couple of years ago. It was more to have something of a diary of what I’d completed and each item was entered under the date of completion. Everything has to be done manually. The items have to be highlighted then copied and then pasted in the list and the date has to be manually entered.

    In order to facilitate this I wonder if Evernote could create two keyboard shortcuts: 1)One to write the date much as the “t” does in Quicken and 2)Another that would automatically move the highlighted task to the “Done” list.

  • Maurice

    Good article!