Technology has produced a variety of productivity tools, from task boards to to-do lists, from relational databases to plans. Yet rather than giving users a sense of accomplishment, they can often instill a sense of overcoming, reminding us of what remains to be done. They all seem to be missing a key feature that would help us feel satisfied and motivated to do even more: the to-do list.
Even before the pandemic, as a work-family researcher and life coach, I saw how talented professionals can feel like they are falling behind despite hard work. At first I thought they needed to prioritize better. It soon became apparent that they had experienced a lot of interference both in the office and at home. In fact, the more reliable and caring they were, the more they were asked to help someone, especially in “emergencies”. These urgent disruptions wreaked havoc on my clients’ plans, leaving them to declare “I didn’t do anything!” and feel exhausted.
I knew they weren’t alone. My research colleagues at Institute of Families and Work, Ellen Galinsky and Ipshita Pal, and I analyzed data from the 2016 Society of Human Resource Management National Study on the Changing Workforce. This representative survey of all American employees reported that 57% report being interrupted often or very often in a typical week, which makes it very difficult to do their job.
Nor was it surprising that the digital tools they relied on were far from cheering them up. Their to-do lists have remained unchanged, serving as a reminder of what they does not have do. Many of their applications archived completed tasks or made them disappear, hiding their successes. More importantly, the online calendars, lists and charts never documented any unforeseen fires they put out, like making last-minute fixes for a customer presentation or taking the car to the mechanic. Their heroism has never been recognized.
Learning from their experiences, I developed a simple technique to complement the digital tools that failed to serve them. The “list of achievements” is a journal of achievements. Kept alongside a traditional “to-do list”, I asked my clients to record the extra things they did, big or small. This alone is not a new idea – people wrote on Lists “completed” for years –but for my clients it has given excellent results.
Why the “ Successful Things List ” can help
Even a small disturbance can impact your mood. In his book Chatter: the voice in our head, why it matters and how to use it, Ethan Kross, professor and director of the Emotion and self-control laboratory at the University of Michigan, wrote: “Your mood is not defined by what you have done but by what you have thought about.”
In a recent phone conversation, he explained, “Zooming in on what you haven’t done can cause gossip” or an escalation of negative thoughts and emotions. In contrast, a list of completed tasks can help you “broaden the perspective.”
“If you can take a step back to see what you’ve done, it stands to reason that you won’t get stuck focusing on the bad feelings of not having accomplished what you set out to do. It makes sense that you feel better, ”he said.
Additionally, the To Do List continued to help my clients and I during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it provided us with ‘compensating control’. Kross explained, “Creating a list can help restore a sense of control in a situation that lacks order, as a way to organize yourself and make yourself feel like it’s something you can handle. “