The Productivity Dilemma: To Do or Not to Do?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
doing, and enlist the support of co-workers, friends
or loved ones to keep you on track.
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
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?”