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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.

[Image: Flickr user Stacy Spensley]

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.

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