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Healthy Living

Why You Need A To-Done List

By Terri Trespicio

Nothing feels quite as good as getting something done. The moment you check off a task on your to-do list, you feel that little surge of self-esteem: You had to do a thing, you did it, now it’s done. Next!

It’s not just about efficiency, however. Every time you make progress, you’re also communicating a message to yourself and others: I’m capable. I’m productive. I can do this. And that goes a long way to building not only a sense of self worth, but a sense of self-efficacy (the belief that you are capable of solving a task or problem), resilience, and even purpose.

In their Harvard Business Review post, “The Power of Small Wins,” Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer explain the profound effect that getting things done has on our mindset, mood, and productivity:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

It can be easy to lose sight of progress when you’re focused on all the stuff you haven’t done. But that’s why it’s even more important to make sure you give your progress it’s due. The only way to do that is to become mindful of it, to build in the habit of seeing not just what you’ve got to do, but what you’ve already done.

Here are a few ways to build a sense of progress into your day and your week:

Keep a “just enough” list. Paula Rizzo, author of the book Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Become More Productive, Highly Successful, and Less Stressed, says that when your to-do list is a mind-dump of everything you want to get done this week, you set yourself up for failure. “This is the fastest way to get overwhelmed and unmotivated,” she says. Instead, she says, keep a list of just three to five things that you have the time and resources to do each day. “This way, you know that if everything else goes haywire, you can feel good that you got just enough done.”

Gamify it. There are numerous apps out now that help you track what you’ve accomplished—one of them is called I Done This, which allows teams to track personal and collective accomplishments. Or, try the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer and work for 25 minutes at a time (or try this Pomodoro timer). Not only can it help you focus, but every time you finish a round, consider it a win. At the end of the day, you can look at how many bursts of focused work you did and feel great about it.

Choose a reward. A little self-bribery never hurt. What’s something you can reward yourself with if you finish your next task? Maybe it’s a walk outside, your favorite iced coffee, or dinner with a friend. And remember, you don’t have to wait for the finale—look at all the things you complete as reason to celebrate. Maybe you moved a project to the next phase, got sign off from a manager on a long-awaited decision, or braved a difficult conversation. Give yourself the chance to experience the upside of a job well done.

Take 10 minutes on Fridays to track your weekly wins. In a recent post on Evernote’s blog on keeping “to-done” lists, Valerie Bisharat suggests taking a few minutes before you leave for the weekend to jot down what you got done that week—and she suggests writing that list by hand, which she says can trigger critical areas of the brain. Seeing your week’s worth of wins in black and white can go a long way to giving you the boost you need, and send you into your weekend feeling great.

Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT