the trouble with to-do

Do you ever find yourself writing a to-do list, and in the top line, instead of writing something to do, you write something you’ve already done… just for the satisfaction of immediately making a mark beside it?

I do this a bit more often than I would like.

I did it this morning, in fact.

To the right, you see my (actual, today) to-do list. I write it like a letter, with the date at the top, in a beautiful book. To the left is something I started today in response to feeling overwhelmed by all that seemed ahead of me. Not a list of to-do, but a list of things done.

As a learner, I often feel as though I am in a transitory period. I’m in one place, and I’d like to be in another. The process of getting there is one of growth, change, and transition. It’s also often painful.

This liminal space – unsatisfied with the here, and certainly not yet there – can feel very vulnerable. Perhaps you’re impatient for signs of progress, tempted to give up when they come too slowly, or not at all. Or maybe you feel that the road ahead is too long, the journey too arduous: there’s just too much to learn and do, so why try? For an extra dose of demoralization, try comparing yourself to others who have already accomplished what you’re still trying out. Is it even more insidious? Do you lack confidence in your innate abilities, your potential to learn, your stamina, or find it hard to ask for help?

As someone learning to code, I have felt all of these feelings a dozen times or more. I become dispirited and feel disempowered: there’s too much to do, I’m too behind, I’ll never catch up, I’m not good enough.

And yet I’ve noticed that part of what informs this hopelessness is not taking stock of the small, incremental steps I’ve taken towards my goal. I focus so much on the to-do, that I fail to acknowledge what has already been done.

It sounds trite, acknowledging that a journey of a thousand miles is made up of steps. But for some reason, it’s all too easy to lose sight of those steps.

By writing my dones today, I bring awareness back to the ways I am moving towards my goals, even when progress seems achingly slow, or depression and anxiety creep in and tell me I’ll never make it. This blog post is another sign of that, an embattled cry against those forces.

I hope that if you’re struggling with a project, you’ll take comfort in these words, and perhaps even a few moments to write down all that you have (already) accomplished today. A few deep breaths and cup of tea can help, too.

When you return to your work – and you will – I hope you return with new energy, clarity, and hope.

Looking for more inspiration? I highly recommend checking out my friend Anna’s blog. She’s got a few great posts up right now: Understanding Computer Words: What Is A Decorator?, Coding Made Me a Better Problem Solver, and My Favorite Python Learning Resources.

Also on the learning journey? Your best read today will certainly be Aubrey Howell’s post at Keen IO’s blog: “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You That You Can’t Be A Developer.” Seriously.

8 thoughts on “the trouble with to-do

  1. Pingback: Kyle Mahan: Liked “the trouble with to-do” by Adrienne

  2. I feel like that quite a bit of the time, even while it’s clear to me that I have a pretty decent grasp on what I’ve been learning! Taking stock via list is a good plan, and one I should do more often. On an unrelated note (sort of unrelated anyway), evidently is looking for people to apply to do open-source Python projects on fellowship this summer! Maybe you want to apply or know someone who does?


    • Thank you so much for sharing this Eileen! I appreciate you looking out for me. I always feel like you’ve got my back, and that’s a very nice feeling, indeed. 🙂

      I’m actually attending RailsConf’s RailsBridge workshop in a couple weeks, so perhaps I’ll learn more about the summer of code then! I’m not ready for it now, but I might meet someone who is interested.

      Since I started writing out what I’ve done, in addition to what I have to do, I feel a bit better. Still have a lot of work ahead of me, though!


  3. Hi Adrienne!

    thanks for the positive post 🙂 It is so easy to focus on what needs to be done and disregard what you manage to do every day. I don’t know where this expectation comes from, but I saw it mentioned in at least three places:
    – the Dalai Lama told something like “You are unsatisfied with your progress? Think of where you were five years ago, you surely made lot of progress since then!”;
    – Pete Ramey, a horse hoof specialist, takes pictures of the hooves the first time he visits a horse, because the owner and himself always think that the hoof didn’t look that bad at the beginning, and it is getting worse while it is not;
    – Betty Edwards in her book about learning to draw, asks all students to make three initial drawings before starting lessons or the book, so to have a proof of how (bad!) they initially drew. She says that everyone keeps being critical with their drawing as they progress.

    So thanks for the suggestion of your post, and keep us posted on your discoveries in cooking and computing 🙂

    Anne from Germany


    • Thank you so much for your kind reply, Anne! It means a lot to me.

      These examples that you provided were so thoughtful, and really touched my heart. Thank you for sharing them. It helps put things in perspective in a major way. Of course I am in a much different place than I was five years ago – surely I have made such progress since then! And the examples from Pete Ramey and Betty Edwards really hits at how myopic our view of progress can be. Thank you for your encouragement!


  4. Writing down what you’ve done is definitely a powerful tool. For the longest time I would use a whiteboard as my TODO list, wiping away a task when I was finished. While it felt good to clear a space, it was quickly filled with another task needing to get done. I felt that it was a never ending cycle with no progress.

    That changed when I also started tracking my “dones”. It is incredibly helpful to see where you are on your journey, so that you don’t feel lost along the way.

    Execellent post on a topic that everyone, not just beginners can really benefit from.


    • Hey James! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and supportive words!

      I actually just started using a whiteboard for my TODO list, and so far it is going okay. I can definitely feel the sadness of just wiping away something done, rather than getting to see it written out in a book that I can refer to later. So I’m choosing to use the whiteboard in a very specific way. Instead of writing all of my to-dos for the day, I just write a handful of major things I’d feel really good about accomplishing that day. I’m feeling good about it!

      So glad to know I’m not the only one tracking “dones”. In some ways, it feels like a journal of its own, which is great, since I’m terrible at keeping a real journal. 🙂


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