Boost Productivity With a To-Don’t List

To-do lists are a common productivity tool.  They help you stay focused and clarify what needs to be done.  However, just as important as writing a list of things you need to do, you need to write a list of things to stop doing.

Why Adding More Work Doesn’t Make You Productive

If you’re really disorganized and lack motivation, then you can spend time trying to increase your total output.  So if you’re currently outputting 2 hours of productive work each day, it isn’t unreasonable to push that up to 4, 6 or higher.  But this approach of taking on more work eventually reaches a stopping point.

When you’re already fairly productive, you can’t simply add on more work.  Adding more work might make you get more done in the short term, but eventually you burn out.  Once you reach this point, the only way to get more progress towards your goals is to stop doing work.

To-Don’t Lists

I’m not going to make recommendations to cut your email usage, surf the net less or eliminate busy-work.  Those are all useful suggestions, but they don’t really get at the heart of what makes a to-don’t list powerful.  You should always try to reduce low-value work, but to-don’t lists help you eliminate something harder to stop.

The work that is harder to stop is work that has some value, in the short-term, but won’t help you reach your final goal.  Today, the work might be helpful, but it isn’t going to help you reach your goals months and years down the road.

A personal example for me was my decision to stop freelance writing.  Up until August of 2008, I did freelance writing for other websites than my own.  The pay was good, considering the amount of work I had to put in.  I also enjoyed the work, and my clients were good.  Despite this, I forced myself to stop.

The reasoning was simple: although freelance writing helped me get a higher income now, it wouldn’t help me reach the financial goals I had set for myself.  Freelance writing could help me reach $20,000 in part-time income, but it wouldn’t be able to grow to reach $200,000.

Short-Term Benefits, Long-Term Disaster

Stopping freelance writing was difficult.  It meant my income would drop and I was only saving a few hours each month.  However, I also knew that it couldn’t take me to my goals.  As a result, my decision meant less money now, but increasing the possibility of more revenues later.

Most goals have similar to-don’t lists.  These are things that are helping you reach an intermediate target, but hold you back on reaching bigger results.  A few examples of work that hold you back include:

  • Working a 9-5 when you really want a business.
  • Tasks that can’t scale.  (Consulting doesn’t scale, creating a product can)
  • Reading somewhat useful books.
  • Spending time with friends you don’t share values with.

Don’t Procrastinate Your To-Don’t List

Most people stop working on to-don’t items when they find something better.  They stop freelancing when they earn enough money from their business.  They stop spending time with people they don’t care about when they find friends they like. This is backwards. Although it can work, it’s a lot slower than actually following through with your to-don’t list as soon as possible.

Sometimes you can’t immediately eliminate something from your life. That’s okay. But the time to remove a to-don’t item is as soon as you can tolerate the temporary dip, not just when you find something better.

Get Rid of the Mirages

Look at one of your major goals.  Then write a list of all the things you’re currently doing that will allow you to reach that target.  This is your to-do list.  Now write down all the activities that you’re doing that bring you closer to this goal, but won’t get you to the finish line.  That’s your to-don’t list.

Get rid of the mirages, the bits of work that give you some value, but don’t quench your thirst.  Because productivity isn’t just knowing what to do, it’s knowing what to stop.


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