I Tried the “Reverse To-Do List” Method and I’ve Never Been Less Stressed (It Brings Me Joy!)

published Feb 1, 2024
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Credit: Photo: Sidney Bensimon; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when I would end the day with a fully completed to-do list. This was during grad school when I was doing an internship as part of my training to become a counselor, and my eight-hour day consisted of four therapy sessions, a lunch break, a meeting with my supervisor, and dedicated time for reviewing files and writing notes. Clients would occasionally miss appointments, but otherwise, my schedule was predictable enough that I was able cross everything off my to-do list

These days, I no longer work as a therapist and this tightly scheduled internship hardly resembles my current work life which includes balancing a full-time job and part-time work as a freelance writer. Rarely do I get to check off everything on my list, even though I now organize them by week rather than day to account for all the extra items. Even when I manage to do most of the things, I still feel as though I’m hopelessly behind. But recently, I started making a reverse to-do list, and honestly, it’s helped me feel so much better. 

Oliver Burkeman, author of Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, refers to this feeling as “productivity debt,” meaning you start the morning with a deficit and feel compelled to work all day to reach a zero balance. His suggestion is to keep a “done list” to help break out of the mindset of needing to pay off your productivity debt.   

Credit: Nandini Maharaj

What Is a “Done” List?

A done list or reverse to-do list is a list of things you accomplish. You might find that it works better to write a done list at the end of the day, but my preference is to start working on a list first thing in the morning and continue adding to it throughout the day.

You can start with a blank sheet of paper or a new note on your phone and make an entry each time you complete a task or accomplish something — however big or small. For example, your list might include the following: took a shower, packed a lunch for work, or sent out a meeting invite. Everything you accomplish gets added to your growing balance of productivity. 

The logic behind a done list is that you start the day with a zero balance, rather than working to pay off some invisible debt of not having done enough. Each day is “an opportunity to move a small-but-meaningful set of items over to your done list,” Burkeman says. This strategy can help you prioritize which items to concentrate on and which ones might be distracting you from your goals. 

Credit: Nandini Maharaj

Why a “Done” List Works for Me

When I’m staring at a lengthy to-do list, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed, thinking about where to start. Plus, certain tasks and projects require multiple steps or days to complete like hosting an event or decluttering your garage. Trying to summon the motivation to restart after taking a break or wrapping up for the day can be mentally taxing. 

As someone who struggles with anxiety, it’s important for me to celebrate small wins rather than dwelling on what awaits me tomorrow. Work can be unpredictable, whether I’m troubleshooting problems for other people or dealing with my own deadlines. Creating a “done” list helps me get through more of my to-do list because I can see the progress I’m making toward my goals. 

Along with boosting my mood, taking time to acknowledge my accomplishments reminds me that work-related outputs aren’t the only indicator of productivity and time well spent. Cooking dinner or grooming my dogs is part of the running list I keep in my mind. With a “done” list, I get credit for completing meaningful tasks that seldom make it onto my page of to-dos.