Forget making a to-do list. Why an anti to-do list might be the secret to productivity via @FastCompany

Why An Anti To-Do List Might Be The Secret To Productivity

If you start each day with a rigid set of must-do tasks, you're already doing it wrong.

I’ve gradually realized that my day is not occupied only by tasks from my to-do list. Often, there are lots of other tasks that deserve time in my day just as much as those I have in my to-Do List. Previously, I found that these extra tasks detracted massively from my feeling of productivity and happiness.

After I read a great article from the guys at iDoneThis, I made some concrete changes and started to feel consistently much more productive. Since then, the Anti-To-Do List has become a daily habit, so I want to share it with you.

The Anti-To-Do List concept

My approach with the Anti-To-Do List is to have not just a single list each day, as many of us do now (our to-do list), but to have two. The idea of the Anti-To-Do List is that it is the account of progress for that day. In some ways it’s a "Done" List. This is really powerful, because you can always look back at your Anti-To-Do List and see how much you’ve got done (even if the items weren’t on your todo list).

Just like how you get a little rush by crossing something off your to-do list, the Anti-To-Do List goes even further and suggests that you actually write the items down fresh, and write all the additional tasks you end up accomplishing which weren’t necessarily on your todo list. This has given me an extraordinary feeling of productivity and fulfillment, and I’ve found it helps me sustain my productivity throughout the week, whereas previously I would be "knocked down" a little by the fact I sometimes had extra things come up that I needed to complete.

The Anti-To-Do List and feeling productive

I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t "count."

The split between to-do-list tasks and non-to-do list tasks could be defined as proactive vs reactive. Clearly, we need to be proactive in order to make great progress moving forward (we shouldn’t be controlled by the emails we receive), but we inevitably have tasks during the day which are not on our to-do list but do deserve our time. The key is to write those items down in your Anti-To-Do List, and get that same feeling as when you cross something off your to-do list.

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that "where did the day go?" feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done. It’s literally possible to move those tasks above the line and create a feeling of productivity. That’s powerful.

One of the most interesting things that has happened during my journey with Buffer is how quickly my role adjusts. Whereas previously I would spend a lot of my time coding, I’m now spending lots of time hiring and working on the culture at Buffer. This has meant I’ve switched from a pure maker workflow to more of a manager schedule.

One of the most important things is that I’m now a potential blocking point for people to get on with their work, and I need to avoid that. Matt Blumberg put it well in his article "What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?":

Don’t be a bottleneck. You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects. Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.

As a result, a lot of the time I have things I do during the day which weren’t on my to-do list. Things which come up and I need to do, which are actually a big part of moving Buffer forward. The Anti-To-Do List has been a vital lifeline for me in this change from a maker schedule working through a to-do list without much deviation, to a manager schedule with useful interruptions.

The other great side effect is that I can take a look at my Anti-To-Do List each day to validate that I’m making progress on the right things. If I have too many unexpected tasks and not enough from my to-do list, I stop to think about whether I’m letting my tasks be defined too much by others. I then make some adjustments and prioritize the more proactive tasks. I think it’s about a balance, and having two lists is a great way to achieve that.

Have you ever tried keeping an Anti-To-Do List? I’d love your thoughts on this topic or other methods you’ve found useful.

This article originally appeared in Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Stacy Spensley]

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  • I feel like I'd be wanting to call it a "Done" list instead of an Anti-To-Do list. I feel like an Anti-To-Do list would be a list of things I'm not allowed to do on that day. For example, I might declare a Twitter-Free day and put Twitter on my Anti-To-Do list. If I get through 24 hours without Twitter I get to check it off the list. That's pretty cool, I can see that being something interesting to try.

    As for the "Done" list, I've done this and LOVED it! I used to keep an Accomplishments journal where at the end of the day I'd write a list of all the things I'd done. It felt amazing to give my time such wonderful affirmation because I would deliberately list at least fifteen things I did. It might be as simple as making a phone call to my sister, or getting my daughter to school (things that are normal parts of my day and probably not on my to-do list), or project-specific to-dos, but I'd add a quick few sentences about the accomplishment and give myself credit for having done that.

  • I am not sure if by any chance you do not know and have not used Asana? Go to, open up a free account and find out what is to me the best solution I have found after years of research to sort out this issues of to do and not to do lists.

    Asana goes further, thanks to its simplicity, with the added value that it can be used in the corporate environment ( team work) as well as for individual/personal planning .

    Don't take my words for this. Just check it out.

  • Jill Tokarsky

    I just add the items to my to do list so I can see what I did instead of all my items on my original list. I still check them off.

  • Anna Blasberg

    One of my coworkers shared her strategy for creating something very similar to the Anti-To-Do List that has been super helpful for me! Using Trello I log each task that I complete. Every day is a new list, and each task a new card. What I like most about this tactic is that I'm able to easily go back and see when I completed a certain item. This is especially helpful if someone asks me when I finished a project or made a change in the account.

    This method has worked great for me, maybe it can for you too!