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As I stare lovingly at my neat, prioritised To Do list, I allow myself to bathe in the warm, smug  glow of time well-managed. Stephen Covey would be proud. Except, of course, on further inspection, my “write blog post” task has slowly crept from the ideal of quadrant two, with all its promise of thoughtful, creative work, towards the screeching deadlines of quadrant one.quadrants

The thing is, I know how to prioritise my time; I run workshops to help other people manage their workloads and prioritise their tasks. But sometimes, well, stuff happens (right?!), and you find yourself spending your time increasingly on “urgent, important” tasks and “urgent, unimportant” things, unable to give enough time and attention to the important, meaningful parts of your work. Unless, frankly, you have magic powers, this will happen to all of us from time to time, but if it goes on for too long, it starts to become the norm, with more and more of your once important but not urgent work creeping towards the red zone.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love a good To Do list – ticking off completed tasks is just so satisfying – but recently I started to wonder whether it might be just as useful to have a To Don’t  list as well as, or instead of, your To Do list.

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Best. To Do list. Ever. Prize for the first person to spot whose it is and where it’s from.

The idea of To Don’t lists isn’t new; in fact, Tom Peters, renowned author of the 1982 book In Search of Excellence, asserts that “focussing formally, regularly, probably daily, on to don’ts is critically important for personal…success.” and I certainly think that making a  deliberate decision to approach your workload from the other side, can be really empowering. Instead of running out of time before you get to the less important tasks, your To Don’t list enables you to make non-completion of a task a positive act. Brilliant!

It might sound pretty easy to rid yourself of such distractions, but not all of the items on your inchoate To Don’t list will be small fry. Some of them may involve uncomfortable conversations with colleagues about why you’re no longer able to undertake a particular activity; some of them, I’m afraid, will almost certainly involve uncomfortable conversations with yourself about whether certain behaviours are actually sabotaging your progress.

I’d love to tell you what should be on your To Don’t list – not least, because I’m bossy – but we all have different priorities, and our To don’t lists will be as different as our To Do lists. However, there are some guiding questions below that might be useful in helping you to think about what your to don’t list might look like:

  • What are your priorities in your current role?
  • What do you want to get out of your current role? Where do you want to go next?
  • What are you currently doing in your job that won’t help you achieve those goals?
  • Are there any projects or activities you’re working on that aren’t contributing to success in your current job?

(adapted from article here.)

Business journalist and author, Daniel Pink, goes further with his To Don’t list, moving from tasks, to attitude and behaviour change:

  • Don’t answer email during peak morning writing hours
  • Don’t drink coffee in the afternoon
  • Don’t accept meetings or calls initiated by others that you wouldn’t have initiated yourself
  • Don’t go to sleep after 11pm

(full article here)

The beauty of a To Don’t list, I think, is that you can use it in the way most useful for you. Ditching rubbishy, soul-sapping tasks can make an immediate difference to how you feel about yourself and your work; using a To Don’t list to reinforce positive behaviours or attitudes could help you to be happier and more productive in the long term.

As I post this, it’s February 29th; an extra day we don’t normally get, since 2016 is a leap year. Why not use this “bonus” day to really reflect on your values and priorities, and put starting your To Don’t list at the top of your To Do list?


To Don’t list – image credit here
My favourite To Do list – image credit here
Four quadrant tasks – image credit here