The Productivity Dilemma: To Do or Not to Do?

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The Productivity Dilemma: To Do or Not to Do?
“Do-not-do” lists might be the answer to improving your time management.

Chelsea Greenwood

Hi, my name is Chelsea, and I’m a listaholic. At any given time, I have multiple lists outlining chores to do, people to call, things to buy, etc. Even the fun stuff somehow makes its way into list form, from movies to watch and books to read to places to visit.


Sound familiar? If you, too, live by the list, consider this: How many of those list items ever get done—and how many of them really need to get done? Sure, it would be great to finally send in that $15 rebate or reorganize your file cabinet. But, by constantly nagging yourself about accomplishing these not-so-consequential tasks, they wind up hanging like millstones around your neck. Who needs that added anxiety?

“In the rush of our intense workdays, our instinct is to focus on ever-expanding to-do lists,” says Matthew Cornell, a personal-productivity specialist and a consultant at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “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 reexamining at a higher level what we’re doing in the first place.”

Many productivity and time-management experts say the most helpful list you may ever create is one outlining what not to do. By taking a realistic look at how you spend your time, you can determine which activities don’t yield valuable results in return for the time and effort they require. Then, you can cut those time-wasters out of your life. That is the question. “Do-not-do” lists might be the answer. by Chelsea Greenwood

In his best-seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Jim Collins lauds the value of a “stop-doing” list: “Those who built the good-to-great companies… made as much use of stop-doing lists as to-do lists. They displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.”

The first step in deciding what not to do in your life is zeroing in on what you ultimately want to achieve.

“If you really get clear about your real goals, visions and values, it will be easier to cull the extraneous things off your lists that aren’t that purposeful for you,” says David Allen, an author, lecturer and founder and chairman of the David Allen Company, a management consulting, coaching and training fi rm.

Sit down with your co-workers, spouse or family members, and take some time to outline your priorities in as specific terms as possible. For example: “We want to sell X amount by the end of the year,” or “We want to save X amount for retirement by 2015.” Having this endpoint in mind will help you streamline the road to getting there and remove any speed bumps along the way.

Next, the most important step is to assess how you currently spend your time. “The biggest time-management mistake people make is not realizing how much time they waste,” says Peggy Duncan, personal-productivity expert and author of The Time Management Memory Jogger. “To get a visual of how you spend your time, keep a time log for a few days.”

Dedicate a new notebook and choose at least three days to log from an average week (not during the holidays, a vacation, a period of transition, etc.). If you’re looking at your in-office habits, choose weekdays; if you’re looking at your time spent at home or with loved ones, choose a couple of weekdays and a weekend. Duncan suggests creating columns with the following headers:

1. Time: Record the start and end times, not just the total amount.

2. Activity: Describe exactly what you were doing.

3. Planned: Was the activity planned or last-minute?

4. Interruption: Did you encounter an interruption while trying to accomplish your task? What was it—an e-mail, an instant message, a co-worker dropping in?

5. People: Who else was involved in this activity?

6. Priority A to D: Give the activity a priority grade (A being the highest) based on your goals and how you’ve prioritized your work.

Next, take some time to objectively analyze your log. Look for patterns that you may not have noticed before. The time column may reveal that you take frequent coffee breaks in the afternoon.

Or you may notice that you’re prone to spontaneous activities that deter you from your planned goals for the day. Maybe meetings take longer whenever a certain co-worker is around.

Now it’s time to budget. Collins writes: “In a good-to-great transformation, budgeting is a discipline to decide which arenas should be fully funded and which should not be funded at all. In other words, the budget process is not about figuring out how much each activity gets, but about determining which activities best support [your goal] and should be fully strengthened and which should be eliminated entirely.”

Decide which activities support your aforementioned goal, and consider that, after assessing your log, some of these can be improved or streamlined. Those activities that distract or detract from your goal go on your “do-not-do” list.

Cornell adds that it may be helpful to make a third list of “projects or efforts that, while interesting and potentially valuable, simply aren’t worth doing at this time. Rather than simply 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’ of projects you’re not doing as a dynamic thing. You should review it periodically to evaluate whether it’s time to reactivate some of them.”

Depending on how drastic your findings are, implementing your do-not-do list may require persistence and teamwork. Post the list in one or more visible areas to remind yourself what you should not be doing, and enlist the support of co-workers, friends or loved ones to keep you on track.

Allen recommends using the power of positive thinking. “Focus on ways to identify yourself with the new, more supportive habit,” he says. “Instead of telling yourself you should stop watching TV on the couch, start imagining how good you’ll feel on a walk in the fresh air. That new identification will naturally get you off the couch.”

Collins writes that seeing through on your do-not-do list ultimately may take sheer force of will. “The real question is… do you have the discipline to do the right thing and, equally important, to stop doing the wrong things?”

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