To-do lists are universal. Yet, while most of us can speak eloquently about our system for adding to-dos to our list, we rarely, if ever, discuss how we decide what NOT to do. After all, productivity, doesn't just mean getting a lot done, it also means allocating and expending your energy efficiently. And that means focusing on what you should NOT be doing as much as what you should.
Take bestselling author Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good to Great) for example. Collins maniacally tracks how much time he expends on his three main areas of focus (creative pursuits, teaching, and everything else) – literally using a dedicated stopwatch to track each. But he also relentlessly rejects opportunities (or future "to-dos") that don't fit with his objectives. The NYT writes:
“Mr. Collins also is quite practiced at saying “no.” Requests pour in every week for him to give speeches to corporations and trade associations. It could be a bustling sideline, given that he commands a top-tier fee of $65,000 to dispense his wisdom. But he will give only 18 speeches this year, and about a third of them will be pro bono for nonprofit groups. Companies also ask him to consult. But he mostly declines, agreeing only if the company intrigues him and if its executives come to Boulder to meet him.”
To stay on course, we must constantly be assessing what will take us off course, and be willing to reject those tasks, and even unexpected opportunities, as appealing as they may seem.
Here are a few best practices for deciding what NOT to do, so that you can keep your energy focused on the objectives that really push your business forward:
1. Distill the key objectives for your business down to just a few items.
You can't very well decide what NOT to do, if you aren't crystal clear on what you want to achieve. What are you trying to accomplish in the short-term (this week, this month)? What are you trying to accomplish in the long-term (this year, the next 5 years)? Your goals shouldn't be a laundry list of 10 things, it should be a limited, achievable list – perhaps just 2-3 items (à la Collins). If something you're about to add to your to-do list doesn't push you toward any of these goals, consider removing it.
2. Kill ideas with gusto.
Though they charm us with their novelty, new ideas are actually the arch-enemy of project completion. Whether they expand the scope of an existing project or pull our attention away to an entirely new project, new ideas regularly steer us off-course. Consider filing away that new idea in a “backburner” document – a running list of ideas you want to come back to – until you have some energy freed up. If it still seems earth-shatteringly brilliant when you revisit it, then it's probably worth doing. If it doesn't, good thing you didn't waste your time.
3. Ruthlessly prune your to-do list.
Often we add seemingly crucial items to our to-do lists, only to find – a week later – that they're still languishing, un-done. One best practice is to review your to-do list weekly – if not daily – and ruthlessly prune away the action steps that seem unnecessary (or ineffectual) after further thought. If you can even debate whether it's worth doing or not, your energy would probably be better spent elsewhere.
***This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think thank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.