Some people really like to create lists. Often, these take the form of things “to do.” Some people even get such satisfaction from crossing items off of their to-do lists that if they accomplish something that wasn’t on their list, they’ll write it down and immediately cross it off.
Know anyone who does that? (Sometimes, that’s me. I’ll admit it.)
These types of lists are great. They help us stay apprised of what needs to happen in various parts of our lives, both professionally and personally. My weekly to-do list helps me immensely in providing structure to my week.
But there’s another kind of list that can be helpful. It’s one that can be particularly helpful for those whose work has reached a level of complexity that’s overwhelming, a level of busyness that’s forcing them to do everything at a level of mediocrity that’s highly dissatisfying.
That list is the “to-don’t” list. It’s something I encourage busy people, particularly executives, to create and review once in a while.
The to-don’t list is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a list of tasks that you’re currently doing or frequently find yourself being pulled into but are either
- outside of your set of unique abilities or
- have a low probability of a positive return on your investment of time and effort.
Most executives I know find themselves engaged in all kinds of activities that fall into these two categories.
One particularly useful way to use the to-don’t list is as a tool to enhance your level of delegation. For example, out of the various tasks you typically do, what are two or three of them that you could begin transferring to someone else? Add those to your to-don’t list, and make a plan for training one of your direct reports on how to take on those tasks.
And although the to-don’t list deals with things you’re currently doing, it’s also important to consider the numerous opportunities that come our way every day. For those, I recommend following the advice of Derek Sivers (a musician, entrepreneur and overall interesting person). His advice? When thinking about new projects or tasks, the choice should be “hell yeah or no.” (Keep in mind that this assumes that you're already successful and that you have many options.)
Here’s Derek explaining that in 60 seconds.
Regardless of whether you’re thinking about potential opportunities or what you’re currently doing, continual pruning will let you increasingly focus upon what you do best.
So while you’re making your next to-do list, consider making a to-don’t list as well.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com.