Try an ‘Anti-To-Do List’ To Feel Happier and More Productive

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.

My changing role at Buffer, and the Anti-Todo List

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 prioritise 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.

  • Sheryl Koenigsberg

    Love this idea and I definitely add things to my daily to-do list just so I can check them off and see where my day went. Would you be willing to post an example day of your to-do and anti-to-do lists?

    • http://asyouevolve.org/ Kristen

      I second Sheryl. Would love to see a visual of your anti-to-do list!

    • http://courtneyseiter.com/ Courtney Seiter

      Great thought, Sheryl! Maybe we can follow up with some visuals; I’d love to take a peek also! :)

  • http://lukemcg.com/ Luke McGrath

    I like the idea, sometimes I can forget what I’ve done by the time I get round to iDoneThis for the day!

    Do you keep a paper list, or are you using an app for lists?

  • Kara Humphrey

    I’ve been using iDoneThis for a few months and absolutely love the feeling of looking at all the things I’ve accomplished over time! Like Joel, I work in a job that requires I spend a good bulk of my time responding to the needs of my colleagues and clients. Finding a balance between getting my personal work needs met and meeting the needs of others was frustrating when I’d look back at my day and struggle to remember how I spent my time. Now that I can view and organize my accomplishments, I’m feeling much more confident about my abilities to manage my workflow. This process has also helped motivate me to plan my tasks for upcoming work days and work weeks. I use what I’ve learned through documenting tasks on iDoneThis to inform me about positive and negative habits I’ve had in the past, and make any necessary course-corrections. Great stuff.

  • http://www.jasonbedunah.com/ CopywriterJason

    I do something similar but it’s a natural side effect of using Kanban. I have the Kanban tasks which move across my board. When I create a task I put the start date on it and when I complete it I put the completion date/time. At the end of the week I take the cards and lay them out on a copy machine and make photo copies and put them in a 3-ring binder. In one glance, I can see what is coming up, what has been added to the backlog, what is in progress, what I’m waiting on, what I’ve delegated to others and what I’ve completed.

  • designarts66

    Anyone not familiar with GTD may benefit from this Zen-like task management approach.

  • http://peter-rocks.it/ Peter Piskun

    I will give that a try, seems to be the missing link – maybe the one that makes you feel unproductive on some days. I’m thinking of some kind of automation too – for example sending my completed trello+toodledo tasks to iDoneThis? Any recommendations?

  • http://www.achieveee.com navinkulkarni

    Hi Joel. The title of your post attracted me as it is related to what we are currently building. Laterbox.
    Myself and many of my friends, find it tough avoiding distracting thoughts we get while working. (thinking and mindlessly surfing anything that is not related to work)
    We made a simple, straight to the point app for putting all these random thoughts and mark it of ‘later’. The idea is ‘not’ doing it now, but anytime ‘later’.
    For ease of use we are coding a browser extension, mobile and web app.
    There will be a prompt reminder of all your random thoughts collected during the day on your mail and app.
    Would love if you check out the page and join the invite list at http://www.laterbox.co

  • http://notedock.com JB Uy

    Great post Joel! You wrote about this a few years ago right?

    I also keep a “done” list. Multiple lists actually, for the different things I end up doing.

    Often I have a todo list for the day, but other things come up that sidetrack me. Jotting down the things I accomplish helps me to feel productive even of the todo list wasn’t all crossed off.

    In fact, built a web app for this exact purpose after reading your post from a while back.
    It’s at http://www.jots.me if anyone’s interested :)

  • http://www.radialsoft.com BrunoWinck

    Hum, read, did something else and coming back
    Something disturbs me in this idea of productivity. I think as soon as you manage a team larger than 20 people you are not anymore in the doing but into empowering others to do it. Your capacity of work becomes unlimited but prouctivity can only be measured at team level. This is very well reflected on the example of inbox or control freak blocking everything below while staying super busy.
    Instead a team manager or builder should focus on what can make the team even more engaged, powerful or independant. This starts to be very difficult to track. Even the work of interviewing for hiring is not a very productive activity, Taking a leave, read a book, attending a conference, writing a blog post can turn out to be very productive at team or company level.
    In the past I was obssessed by Thing to Do lists, GTD. When coding we more and more depend on others, stupid things can nail us for hours. So I tend have a very flexible approach of todo list and privilege a zen attitude, being in the flow as opposed to hunting productivity, I feel I’m productive anyway, So I jot down a short list of what I really should do (outside from meetings), most important things, rarely more than 5. On the other side I write down what I do, with comments about what I think about it. What matters is how much was done at the end of the day and above it how it contributes to success, how it makes the difference. Sometimes it takes days before I can really judge if it was a good idea or not and that where my journal comes handy. I get both when and my initial judgement on it.
    Going back to cutting grass, totally unproductive task, but has to be done :)

    • http://nicholasbagg.com/ Nicholas Bagg

      Certainly an interesting topic to consider – measuring your productivity on the team level rather than on (your) individual level.

  • When2

    Why not try our new app, attach photos and audio notes to a calendar allowing you to see what you have done or things that simply need to be addressed later
    https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/when2-free/id896072924?mt=8

  • chsweb

    I keep a “Do Not Say” list, which it includes all of the useless or potentially negative phrases that we all use as part of acquired bad habits. For example, never refer to customers as “You guys,” always replace that with their organization name. E.g. Do you guys use Photoshop?” vs. “Does Spacely Sprockets use Photoshop?”

  • http://GTDNext.com GTDNext.com

    As a todo app developer it’s hard for me to read a title like “anti to do list” but after I read it and got the concept, it’s great! I think I’ll add a checklist in http://GTDNext.com to try it out next week!