As the days, months and years go by, the majority of working people get the feeling that they always have more to do than they actually manage to get through every day.
It is probably the same feeling that most university students have when they feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to study, attend lessons and prepare for exams at the same time.
And that’s not to mention the private, family and social commitments that all jostle for a slot in your agenda.
 
We spend many hours working or studying and get home tired yet often with the sensation of not having done all we planned to do or not having met our deadlines.
Alternatively, we feel we have invested our time in tasks we consider unimportant or not very motivating.
One of the methods people use to organise their work or studies, is to start the day by writing a list of things to do.
A To Do list is one of the most traditional planning tools and like all tools, it comes with advantages and disadvantages.
Numerous studies have shown that planning your work or studies by writing up a “list of things to do” will not guard you from the feelings of frustration described above. Paradoxically, To Do lists often heighten these feelings because the list we wrote out in the morning, may end up becoming a stark reminder
in black and white of all the things we didn’t manage to do.
 
Starting your working day by writing a list of things to do, may be a good way of making you more productive, but only if you adopt a few tricks that will make the list useful rather than a nightmare.
 
Serial “To Do list makers” often get carried away with list-making and fall into the dangerous temptation of making them longer and longer, adding new tasks every day and making it practically impossible to get through them all. 
The most likely outcome of all this, is a feeling of frustration at the end of the day and a shift of focus from the things that actually got done, to all the things that didn’t get done, usually as a result of spending time on things that weren’t even on the list.
 
Another common mistake made by Serial To Do List Makers is to fill their day completely with tasks on their list without considering the snags, changes of plan or urgent matters that inevitably crop up during a day spent working or studying.  They may also consider anything that is not on the list to be a holdup or nuisance because it diverts the attention away from the list, whereas the things that were unplanned or not on the list could be more important, useful or significant than some of the planned tasks.
 
Therefore, if you really love planning and cannot start your day without a To Do list as part of your routine, you should bear a few points in mind:
 
  • Start by brainstorming a list of everything you think you should do or want to do;
 
  • Try to be as specific as possible;
 
  • Put the tasks in order of priority, also bearing in mind if the outcome depends on the work of others;
 
  • If you have to collaborators to manage, share your list with them so they can be of assistance and know not to distract your attention with other tasks;
 
  • Allot each task a set amount of time or a specific time of day and try to stick to it;
 
  • Build in time for things that may go wrong;
 
  • Track the progress you are making on your tasks from time to time. Take note and be satisfied with what you have already done and, if need be, strike them off the list and highlight the things you cannot realistically achieve during the course of the day. Consider asking someone else to help you finish certain tasks.
However, some people literally hate the idea of planning and To Do lists:
These people prefer to look back at what they have actually achieved and to write a list of “Things Done”.
 
This approach can be a good way of boosting motivation and productivity. Recent studies on motivation in the workplace demonstrate that, if done properly, taking stock of what has been done can reinforce satisfaction and self-esteem levels among the workforce, avoiding the frustration often felt by those who prefer to plan ahead.
 
If you feel happier looking back at the tasks you have accomplished, it would be useful to spend a few minutes at regular intervals during the day, drawing up a list of what you have done and how long you spent doing it. This will give you a greater sense of control over how your day progresses and serve as valuable insight for a final look back at the day’s or week’s achievements (a useful task for everyone).
This is because the real secret both for lovers of To Do lists and lovers of Things Done lists, lies in the final use you make of these lists.
Both kinds of lists should be seen as tools that throw precious light on what you have achieved in terms of usefulness and progress. This kind of approach will be beneficial to your continuing professional development and in identifying any problems or hindrances that jeopardise your productivity and professional satisfaction.
Therefore, reviewing these lists is of fundamental importance.
Ask yourself some questions and write down the answers: 
 
  • What did I do today that was useful for my work and for the work of others?
 
  • What progress did I make in my work and towards my objectives? 
 
  • Who and what did my work make a positive impact on?
 
  • What happened during the day or week that impacted my work positively or negatively and how did it make me feel?
 
  • What did I do, or what happened today, that I must remember for the future?
 
  • What are some positive things that I am grateful for today? 

Planning in advance or looking back in this way, can be extremely helpful at individual level and when leading a team.
 
Creating a record of the things you do gives you a clearer picture of what is happening at work and what you can do to improve things, in addition to boosting motivation by making the value and usefulness of what you have achieved through your work clearer to yourself and others.
 
This record can be referred to during performance appraisals with your boss and will be a useful reminder of individual and team achievements, enabling you to be more specific and objective.

In today’s technological world invaded by photographs, an original and useful way to keep track of what’s been achieved, is to take photos and display them on the wall of the office to celebrate the work done and the team’s successes. 
So basically, both “looking ahead” and “looking back” are fine, so long as you don’t forget to keep a record of the tasks you have done.
To Do lists and Things Done lists are two excellent ways of raising productivity and awareness in the workplace and, if used carefully, they can boost motivation and celebrate the progress made individually and as a team.
 

Whatever you prefer, once you have finished reviewing your list at the end of the day, it is just as important to put the day behind you and relax, perhaps remembering the words of Etty Hillesum:
 
“Every evening, there should be a moment in which you relax and let things go: let go of the day and all that it contained.   Dismiss the things you didn’t manage to do properly that day, in the knowledge that tomorrow another day will come.  Face the night with empty, open hands, the same hands that voluntarily let the day go.  And upon awakening, it is with those rested, open hands which no longer wanted to hold anything nor had any desire, that each of us will receive a new day.” 
What about you? Do you prefer looking ahead or looking back?