Feeling unproductive and anxious? Try making a “ta-dah” list

A checkmark with arms and legs
A checkmark with arms and legs
Image: Sarah Todd
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At the beginning of 2020, I made a list of all my goals for the year. It is, in retrospect, a hilarious document.

“Throw at least six dinner parties,” I wrote, with the naiveté of a googly-eyed lumpfish. “Visit Laura in Seattle.” “Run a 10K.” “Take a trip abroad.”

Within three months, the pandemic had rendered many of my goals obsolete. But I have found solace this year in another kind of list—one that’s tailor-made for these anxious and uncertain times. It’s known as the ta-dah list, so named after the triumphant sound we make to celebrate our own achievements.

What is a ta-dah list?

Making a ta-dah list is simple: At the end of the day or week, you write up everything you got done that ignites even the tiniest flicker of pride or self-compassion. The list can be a mash-up of the personal and the professional; nothing is too mundane to be worthy of a ta-dah. Recent accomplishments on my own lists include earth-shattering moments such as “cleaned kitchen floor,” “called Mom,” and “found parking spot.”

I first heard about the ta-dah list on the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. A listener wrote in to explain they’d started the practice after starting a new job that involved spending a lot of unstructured time on long-term projects:

For several weeks, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, even though I was making my way through market research and following the trails I needed to. So Friday afternoon, I decided to write down everything I’d done that week, and I was amazed at how good it felt to look back and realize there was substantial progress even if the final payoff isn’t clear yet.

I’ve also found this works well at home. While I have various bigger life goals and projects and things, it’s sometimes discouraging when you make a list of important things to do, and then life gets in the way. If I make a list of things I do just because they are part of life, at the end of the week I can say wow, no wonder other things didn’t happen, you were clearly very busy.

Ta-dah in the time of corona

This particular listener sounds quite well-adjusted. But the ta-dah list may particularly appeal to the neurotically inclined.

“There’s a certain kind of person who very easily feels overwhelmed and discouraged and often sort of guilty about all the things they haven’t done,” says Rubin, who in addition to her podcast is the author of books including The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. “So doing a ta-dah list is a really good way of reminding yourself that you are making good use of your time and that things are getting done.”

That kind of reassurance may be particularly valuable in the coronavirus era. All the stress and isolation of this time has left many people feeling depressed, isolated, and anxious, yet prone to beating themselves up for not writing King Lear or otherwise being sufficiently productive. The ta-dah list is a way of countering the impulse toward self-recrimination, and recognizing that even the smallest of efforts can be worth celebrating. (Personally, I still get a little thrill when I actually complete one of the basic boring tasks that make up much of adult life. If you’re the same way, a ta-dah list is a great excuse to brag to yourself about finally calling the insurance company.)

Rubin points out that ta-dah lists can also be helpful in allowing people to cope with the monotony of pandemic life. “The usual milestones that give us a sense of the passage of time are in disarray, so a ta-dah list can be really good because you see yourself moving through a project, taking one step after another,” she says.

Even if you can’t go to a birthday party or visit your family for a holiday, you can use a ta-dah list to help yourself see what makes each day distinct. The New York Times’ Sam Sifton, for example, has suggested a variation on this theme by keeping track of what you cook as a reminder “of the joys and frustrations of this extraordinary and difficult time.”

To-do lists versus ta-dah lists

That’s not to say that the ta-dah list is for everyone. I asked a few Quartz colleagues to give the ta-dah list a spin for a week, and it received mixed reviews.

My co-worker Susan Howson, who already uses the bullet journal method to organize her days, found the ta-dah list largely redundant. “The point of a bullet journal is that it’s a to-do list but also a record of all the things you’ve done,” she says. While she could see the value in stopping to pause and reflect on what she’d done with her day, she’s typically so busy with work that she doesn’t want to spend the extra time mulling. ”I just want to get done and make dinner.”

There was, however, an exception. Howson was out sick with a migraine one day during her ta-dah list experiment, which left her feeling guilty. That evening, she recalls thinking, “I didn’t get anything done, I took a nap from three to seven, I didn’t make my family dinner. I felt so low.”

Then she made a ta-dah list, and found that she had things to write down after all: She’d canceled meetings, sent her boss information for a group project, washed her sheets. “I even put down ‘took a long shower,’” Howson says. On that day, she found that she enjoyed the ta-dah list: “I did feel like, Oh, I thought this day was a wash, but I did stuff.” Making the list improved her mood, and she was able to get on with her evening.

My Quartz colleague Kira Bindrim also said that the ta-dah list didn’t quite line up with her preferred working style. She keeps track of her responsibilities via digital sticky-notes on her computer, and so she’s accustomed to thinking that “the biggest reward with tasks is for them to disappear.”

She did gain some insights from the ta-dah lists. “I realized that I do a lot of planning,” she says. It was affirming to give herself credit for preparing for a meeting, as opposed to only for presenting at the meeting itself.

Still, she says that ta-dah lists weren’t targeted to her particular form of work-related anxiety. “The thing I want to feel I’ve accomplished each week that’s hard to know,” she says, “is, Did you make someone’s life better?”

Alas, the ta-dah list can’t tell you that. Seen darkly, it may even be a reminder of how much of our lives we spend doing “boring small stuff,” as my friend Olivia puts it.

But I prefer to think of it as a way to reclaim the small stuff—to take satisfaction in another conversation with a colleague, another book read, another pot of spaghetti boiled and served. In treating the most everyday feats as worthy of my own attention, I’ve found more meaning in them.