The To-Do List? Trash It! Try the “I Did It” List

In the first interview with herself after receiving her doctorate, Adrienne Fitzerf interviews Dr. Fitzer, aka “herself” about trashing the to-do list, “I did it” lists, and productivity. It is Fitzer’s Corner written in everyone’s favorite format  “Fitzer talks to Fitzer.” 

Hello Dr. Fitzer! This is the first time we have done an interview since you added a PhD to your email signature line! Any wise words for folks now that you finished Graduate School and call yourself Doc?

Hello! Thank you for having me back. I always enjoy it when you interview me!

That is quite a question. I am not sure I have any wise words, but I do have a something to share that may inspire folks to do things a bit differently every day. 

Sure! Let’s hear it.

When I think back on late 2020, I barely remember anything. I can certainly articulate that I wrote my dissertation manuscript, drove my kids to school or work, helped my son prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, and went to the office to work on ABAC things, but when I sit down and will myself to think about that time period, nothing comes to me. Truly. 

Here is how it goes. I sit down in a quiet space, close my eyes, take a deep breath and exhale slowly and say to myself “End of 2020″ and then I wait for a moment. There is nothing. If you are an imagery person- in that space when I am waiting, my “internal” eyes see blue and green oozing goo… like the oilie stickers I used to like in the 80s- but tinged with a thick black shadow. Perhaps a metaphor for good things surrounded by worry.

Oilie Stickers from the 1980s. You would press on them and the goo inside would ooze slowly making different designs. Image- from internet- no attribution.

As I talk about this I actually do remember something about that time. What I would say to myself, “Just get all of this done, get to the other side of it all and everything will get better. I am so tired, I am so done, can’t stop…. I just need to finish.”

While all of the things I was working on were important wonderful things, I didn’t appreciate any of that.  Getting things off of my to-do list* was all I focused on.

*The “to-do” list. You know, the one that you write everything you want and need to get done on. Then, when you complete something on this list, you draw a slash through the item (with gusto!). If you are a “to-do list person,” you know there is a certain pleasure of getting something OFF that list. In fact, I was reminded recently that often folks (including myself) will add something they did that wasn’t on the list and then immediately cross it off! 

One evening in late January, about a week after my dissertation defense, I found myself looking at yet another to-do list that had items that were conspicuously not slashed. They stood out, shouting at me off the page “WHAT THE F$%&? WHY DON’T YOU WORK HARDER!!!!” I mean, I shouted at myself…and not for the first time.

If you read my recent entry about learning to give myself a break when it comes to self-care expectations It won’t come as a surprise to you that I decided to take a stand against my inner angry voice and give myself a break regarding to-do list expectations. Taking a deep breath…  I finally admitted to myself that at the end of ANY day, I was never done and my to-do list was the problem. 

Wait. Stop. How can a to-do list be the problem!? Isn’t this really an issue of time management or not breaking down your to-do list into manageable chunks like everyone says it is? 

Maybe- but then there is this-

If what gets you through the day is eliminating items off your “to-do” list, you are essentially always trying to escape having something “to do.” You are always fighting, always struggling, always frantically trying “to do,” to “get rid of,” or “get it off” the list. Each thing is just another thing to be done with. And the next day, you start again, eliminating, removing, slashing…..

…..fighting to finish and feeling like a failure on most days…..and damn… all that narrow focus and struggling and negative self-talk makes it hard to pay attention to all the lovely things going on around you. Leaving you months later with nothing but blue and green goo surrounded by shadows. 

I was productive, but really- I was miserably productive.

Hum, who knew a blog about to-do lists could get sort of heavy.

Yeah…well don’t worry- things brighten up…where was I. Oh yes…let me backup just a bit.

“…I finally admitted to myself that at the end of ANY day, I was never done and my to-do list was the problem.”

So I flipped the script.  The week of January 25, 2021  I stopped writing a to-do list in my daily planner. Rather I started:

    • keeping a reminder sheet for the top two or three things I need to complete each day. It is small and only holds the MUST happen that day. NO “want to dos” only priority MUST do; and
    • using my daily planner to log all of the things I accomplished during the day.

Within the first week, I was shocked to see how many things I got done that were not on my reminder list. And guess what- Ugly slashes be gone! It was more pleasant to jot down tons of “I Did Its!” rather than slash “to-dos.”

This all sounds great… but has it helped with the negative self-talk and what not?

Well, had I charted the frequency of mean, harsh, or miserable comments made to myself before I started this and then continued after, I would be able to tell you for sure, but I didn’t so I can’t give you much more than this:

 At the end of the day, I now look at my planner and I give myself a pat on the back for the huge amount I DID and I no longer end the day feeling bad about items that I did not get TO DO.

I am productive, probably as productive as I was before, but now I am joyfully productive.

In our pre-interview, you jokingly said something like “I may have started a trash the to-do list movement.” What did you mean by that?

About 2 or 3 weeks after I started writing “I did It” lists, I shared what I was doing with a colleague of mine. Two or three weeks after that, they told me they started writing “I did It” lists and told me: “I have never been so productive in my life”

And…since they were loving “I did it” lists  as much as I was, they shared the idea with two of their best friends and guess what- THEY love it and feel like their days are more productive too!! Maybe it isn’t a movement, but if three more people in this world are feeling joyfully productive well…whoo hoo!

Do the “I Did It” lists make people more productive?!!

Writing I did it lists may or may not make you MORE productive than to-do lists. I don’t know. That is an empirical question. In my case, I was very productive before, but I was miserably productive. Now I am joyfully productive.

My colleague is a busy and successful professional, spouse, and parent. They were very productive before moving to “I Did It” lists, but perhaps the difference is that now they are joyfully productive rather than miserably productive. I will have to ask them. 

Do you think this is just a fluke?  

Not at all. There is actual science behind why this works. As I would like to take the time to elaborate more on this and our readers need to move on for the day, shall we continue next week?

Absolutely!  Let’s pick this up next week. In the meantime, for those of you are new to the format, check out my original interview with Adrienne Fitzer titled “On Being.”  This heartfelt interview marks the first time Adrienne publicly took a stand against conventional standards- in that interview it was professional clothing choices and make-up. 

We also recommend Adrienne’s recent post Whose Self-Care? Cut Yourself a Break which she referred to during today’s interview.


  1. Dr. Fitzer. I really loved this post. I am frustrated by the fact that most “list-making” software works so that if you check the box, or delete the item because it is completed, it essentially disappears. Why not move the item to an “I Did” list, then spend some time at the end of the day reviewing all of our accomplishments? While the behavioral thinking is obvious, this is also a lesson from systemic theory (paradoxical intervention) and gestalt (the figure doesn’t exist without the ground and vice-versa), etc. Anyway, thanks so much for this always timely reminder!

    1. abacnj_admin says:

      Thank you Dr. Heilveil! I have been sticking to paper and pencil for my “I did it” lists for that exact reason!

  2. Victoria Ferri-Siegel says:

    Dr. Fitzer, Thank you again for your insightful views. I am a very big “To Do Lister” and often feel if I had a few more hours in the day I could actually complete a list. When not completing a list I had actually started to think about things that were not on the list that I had completed and gave myself some “wiggle room”. How refreshing to flip the script and be able to give yourself some credit for all you actually accomplish. I’m going to follow your lead – why not feel good at the end of each day and acknowledge how productive you truly are??? Thank you for putting it into words!!

    1. abacnj_admin says:

      Please keep me posted! I would love to know how it works for you!!

  3. Nikki Bilderback says:

    Love this post. Going to share it with my supervisee who is preparing to take her exam this summer. Her to-do lists make her anxious, but not having a list also makes her anxious. This may be the compromise needed.

    1. abacnj_admin says:

      I hope so!! Let me know how it goes!!

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