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Do, Don't Do, Stop Doing

I had a nice media inquiry last week that highlighted an insight beyond the usual to-do list advice:
So many people run their lives via "to do" lists. What are the advantages of creating "to not do" lists for work and home?
Following is my response, which I had a little fun with. Cheers!

Questions for you

  • When does it make sense to stop doing something?
  • Do you keep a not-doing list?
  • How do you decide when to review things you're explicitly not doing?

Not doing, Stop doing

This is a great question. In the rush of our intense workdays, our instinct is to focus on ever-expanding "to do" lists. This is natural - being busy feels like being effective. But fixating on doing takes us away from two important things: Doing what has the biggest impact on the bottom line (ours or our organization's), and re-examining at a higher level what we're doing in the first place.

There are two parts to "not doing" lists. First is identifying projects or efforts that, while interesting and potentially valuable, simply aren't worth doing at this time. Rather than just dropping them, it's essential to keep a list of these. Otherwise your mind will try to track them for you, degrading your intellectual performance. This is hard, though. Because we want it all, it is difficult to give up. For this reason, it helps to treat this "idea file" [1] (AKA the GTD "Someday/Maybe" list) of project's you're not doing as a dynamic thing. You should review it periodically to evaluate whether it's time to re-activate some of them. Or possibly put them in the dust bin permanently!

Second, there's the idea of the "stop doing" list. In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, Jim Collins emphasizes actively shutting down projects that don't pass the test of being something you absolutely love to do, your are fantastic at, and have the greatest ability to generate income. This might require major shifts in direction. Another tool for assessing what to stop doing comes from Richard Koch's book, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less. He argues that the biggest impact in our work comes from a small number of initiatives (the "vital few") instead of most of what gets our attention (the "trivial many").

Daily Habits

How can people identify habits in their daily lives that should or can be eliminated? And then how do they go about doing so?

A few tools come to mind. At the lowest level, consider evaluating your daily activities using the Urgency/Importance matrix [2]. Popularized by Stephen Covey, it's a tool for judging whether you're working proactively or reactively. Some low-hanging fruit are tasks that are not urgent and unimportant. Going on a media diet (cutting out TV and news, for example) is an easy way to eliminate these.

Another method is to perform some micro experiments to track how you're actually spending your day. There are a number of these, including recording time spent (in 15 minute increments, say), interruptions, repeated work, and quality of "incoming" like email, RSS feeds, and paperwork.

Most importantly, an overarching evaluation of how you work may be in order. Adopting an improved self-management system can help optimize the efficiency of time spent working. Systems like David Allen's "Getting things done" or Mark Forster's Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management are a good start. After all, who wants to spend more time than necessary processing email or deciding the next action to tackle?

As you suggest, making these changes stick can be a challenge - these habits were often formed over many years. Hiring a consultant to get started can be helpful, as is getting a co-worker to be your support person (or better yet, implement them with you!)

Time Wasters

What are some common time-wasters?

Controversially, smart phones like the BlackBerry or iPhone can be massive time sinks. Not only is it very hard to take notes do solid project work (the screens and input tools are simply too limiting), they grab our attention away from the more important tasks at hand. There is plenty of research on multitasking [3] that shows the importance of focusing on one project at a time for large chunks, rather than fracturing our thinking.

There are many things you can do to cut out time-wasters. For example:

  • Use the right communication tool for the task. You can replace a dozen back-and-forth emails with a two minute phone call, for example.
  • Adopt good meeting skills. Invite only people essential to the purpose, have an agenda, stick to it, and finish with clear actions and dates.
  • Reduce interruptions. In addition to tracking interruptions to diagnose patterns (see above), teach people to use your inbox and voicemail, schedule open door time, and turn off "new email" alerts.

Additional thoughts on the subject

In a struggling economy like ours, it is important to step back and get a higher-level perspective on your organization's work. For example, has it brought new opportunities, or is it time to re-evaluate your strategy? However, this kind of thinking requires the mental space that's so hard to find during the day. A few approaches can help, including implementing Innovation Time Off. Like Google's 20-percent time (the source of Maps and GMail) and 3M's 15 percent Rule (Post-It Notes), creating chunks in your schedule for thinking time can have large and unexpected pay-offs. (Sidebar: Check out the LinkedIn question Would Google-style 20% innovation time-off for personal projects work at your company?.)


Reader Comments (5)

Seems that don't do list are becoming more and more popular and there is a lot talk about them.
As you create these lists I think the result might be quite the opposite. Instead of reduction of certain behaviours you may actually focus of them and give them more energy. If you don't want to do some things simply avoid them by replacing with something different. Although it will not be easy.
By creating this type list you affirm "negative" instead of focusing on the positive effect and action.
To me it's like putting a bottle of whiskey in front of an addict and telling him to stop drinking.
If you are not happy with the situation it's better to step back, re-evaluate and act only on THE MOST important things and leave rest for someday/meybe.

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

Excellent point, Rafal. I think the importance of Not Doing is as a starting point - clearing the decks for the positive. I like your replacement idea, though. Thanks for commenting!

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Good idea: making NOT to do lists. I have lots of to do's but too often end up doing nothing. I will put a big reminder NOT to do list next to my computer.

February 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersylvia

Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only two types of papers ever reached his desk, those marked "urgent" and those marked "important." He so much time on urgent matters, he complained, that he never got to what wasd important.

Do "spell checking" and "grammar" come under "urgent" or "important"?

August 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKen Park

Do "spell checking" and "grammar" come under "urgent" or "important"?

Good question. Me: 1,1.

Your message gave me some new 2x2 dimensions to consider with respect to communication: Useful, Direct, Kind.

Thanks for commenting.

August 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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