The Anti-Todo List

Written on 12th November, 2012
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For some time, I’ve gradually realised that my day is not only occupied by tasks from my todo list. Often, there are lots of other tasks which deserve time in my day just as much as those I have in my todo list. Previously, I found that these extra tasks detracted massively from my feeling of productivity and happiness.

It was when I read a great article from the guys at iDoneThis three weeks ago which I made some concrete changes and started to feel consistently much more productive. Since then, the Anti-Todo List has become a daily habit, so I want to share it with you.

The Anti-Todo List concept

My approach with the Anti-Todo List is to have not just a single list each day, as many of us do now (our todo list), but to have two. The idea of the Anti-Todo 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-Todo 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 todo list, the Anti-Todo 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 fulfilment 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 which I needed to complete.

The Anti-Todo List and feeling productive

I’ve realised that without the Anti-Todo List, whenever I was doing a task not on my todo-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 todo list, and that it didn’t “count”. Here’s an example, the tasks in the lower half are the ones which were not on my todo list:

The split between todo-list tasks and non-todo 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 todo list but do deserve our time. The key, is to write those items down in your Anti-Todo list, and get that same feeling as when you cross something off your todo list. With this little change, I now feel more like this most days:

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-Todo 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 happening right now is that my role is adjusting rapidly. 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?:

Dont be a bottleneck. You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you dont 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 todo-list. Things which come up and I need to do, which are actually a big part of moving Buffer forward. The Anti-Todo list has been a vital lifeline for me in this change from a maker schedule working through a todo 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-Todo 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-Todo List each day? I’d love your thoughts on this topic or other methods you’ve found useful.

Photo credit: Anna-Maria Mueller