I live and die by my to-do list. Jotting down everything that needs to get done is often the very first thing I do when I sit down at my desk in the morning. It helps me to feel focused, organized, and like I have a decent plan of attack for my day.
But despite the fact that my planner has the capability to make me feel like some sort of productivity prodigy, it also has a sneaky way of swooping in and making me feel downright unaccomplished.
You know the feeling: You start your morning by scribbling down all sorts of different tasks and projects—you feel motivated and confident that you’re about to put them all to shame, despite the fact that (in reality) it would likely take you three days to complete everything you’ve written down. You’re blinded by your own optimism.
Suddenly, the end of the workday creeps up, you glance down at your beloved list, and over half of those items remain completely untouched. "What the heck have I been doing for the past eight hours?" you ask yourself in between sobs and sighs. You’re left feeling frustrated, discouraged, and disheartened.
Unfortunately, this situation is all too familiar to most of us. Yes, in some cases, writing your to-dos down is great for keeping you on track. But there are also far too many times when it only serves to make you feel plain ol’ crappy. Even if you put in a solid day’s work, you’re forced to focus on all of the things that you didn’t manage to get done—and you completely forget about anything you actually did get accomplished (particularly if it wasn’t on your calendar to begin with!).
This is a trap I’ve fallen into far too often. So needless to say, I was intrigued when I read an article about the "anti–to-do list," a productivity concept established by Marc Andreessen. And, as I’m sure you could guess, I was all too willing to jump in and give it a try.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I can’t blame you. I was too until I stumbled across that article. Basically, this strategy works backwards from its traditional counterpart. Rather than writing down things you need to do, you write down the things you’ve already done—whether they’re big projects or little action items.
By implementing this method, you end your workday with a list of all of the things you accomplished—rather than a daunting roster of all of the things that are still left to do.
The whole thing sounded simultaneously encouraging and terrifying. On one hand, I liked the idea of focusing on the positives. But, how could I possibly function without my to-do list? I’d never tried to make it through a day without one, and I was certain the entire experiment (which I decided to implement for one entire workweek) would be a recipe for disaster.
However, surprisingly, nothing too detrimental happened. And, the whole process actually illustrated a few helpful lessons. Here are three major things I learned by using only the anti to-do list, and kicking my tried and trusted list of duties to the curb.
As I mentioned, the mere thought of forgoing the standard approach was enough to break me into a cold sweat. It was the crutch I leaned on to get me through my day, and I was sure that neglecting it as soon as I sat down at my desk would result in my career crashing down around me.
I think we all have the tendency to react this way. To-do lists have become such an oft-repeated element for productivity, that the idea of not making one entirely sounds like a surefire way to get nothing done.
But if there’s one thing that this experiment made clear, it’s that I don’t trust myself enough. Even though I was letting go of the plan that I had come to rely on so heavily (in favor of creating a list of my accomplishments instead), I was still able to move throughout my day and my workload with relative ease and efficiency. And nothing terrible happened, to boot.
No, I didn’t have that trusty roster sitting right next to me on my desk. But with the combination of my inbox, my calendar, and—gasp!—my very own brainpower, it really wasn’t too difficult to keep track of what needed to get done.
Alright, perhaps this lesson is a little too predictable, given that it’s the entire point of the experiment. But it was significant, so I figured it was worthy of note.
With a traditional to-do list by my side, I usually ended the day in an emotional funk. The days when I managed to cross everything off it were few and far between, which led to a lot of feelings of inadequacy when the end of my workday rolled around. Even if I spent the entire past eight hours whizzing around like the Tasmanian Devil, it still never quite seemed like enough.
So, it’s no wonder that this is one of the key benefits of the anti to-do list. It forces you to reflect and think of all of those things—big and small—that you did manage to accomplish. Whether it was something that I had set out to get done or a fire that cropped up and needed to be put out, I could wrap up my workday feeling like I had made great use of my time—rather than constantly feeling like I came up short.
While this feeling obviously helped me to head into my evening without a crabby attitude, I was surprised at how much it impacted my productivity as a whole. Day after day, I sat in front of my computer feeling driven and encouraged, instead of feeling this weight of everything that was left unaccomplished pushing down on me.
In turn, this actually made me more productive. The cliché sentiments you hear time and time again are actually true—your overall attitude and outlook can really improve your efficiency and your motivation.
As I’m sure you can discern, I really liked this method—and I’m sure my loved ones appreciated me strolling out of my office without being a total downer day in and day out.
So, it’s definitely something I plan to continue to implement. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ready to bid adieu to a standard to-do list forever. Instead, I’m going to try to merge the two different philosophies to reach a happy medium that works well for me.
I plan to maintain two lists: One that’s traditional, and one that acts as a reminder of my accomplishments. I’m hopeful that this will help me achieve the best of both worlds—including recognizing and celebrating the things I got done that weren’t necessarily on my original radar to begin with.
I think that this adjusted approach presents an important lesson for everyone. There are tons of different hacks, tips, tricks, and methods that you can try. But the important part is to find an approach that works best for you (and not necessarily everyone else).
So don’t get so wrapped up in how things are supposed to be done and instead make any necessary adjustments until you land on something that makes you your most positive and productive self. In the end, that’s the true recipe for success.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.