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The One Thing Missing from Your To-Do List


For Today

  • Complete monthly report

  • Prepare status update meeting

  • Call back Joe Bourne

  • Prepare for Widgets Inc. delivery

  • Pick up dry cleaning

  • Call back mom

  • Send Jones & Little proposal

Our to-do lists can be never-ending. Overwhelming.

Maybe you’ve experimented with different time management strategies or read productivity books to learn how to prioritize your list. However, something always comes up and priorities get pushed back, leaving goals unmet and to-do lists incomplete.

In fact,  41% of to-do list items are never completed.

The bottom line: If you have 40 items on your list marked as priorities, you might as well have none. While you’d be hard pressed to find an individual in the workforce today who doesn’t keep a to-do list, it’s the rare individual who also keeps a “to-don’t” list.

This is the one thing that most people are missing. What are you not going to get to? What priority are you saying “no” to today?

As Michael Porter said, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

There are endless ideas for what to do at work. For example, if you’re in sales, you can prospect for new business, attend networking events, speak at conferences, expand your territory, grow existing accounts, and so on. However, you can’t do it all. At least you can’t do it all well, right now.

In our latest Extreme Productivity Benchmark Report, we found that “The Extremely Productive” are 5.3 times more likely to prune their priority list down to the most essential than less productive people — what I call “The Rest.” In fact, only 6% of The Rest report that they whittle their priority list down to the smallest essential list — and they represent 86% of respondents.

That leaves a lot of people with long to-do lists — at least, too long to get everything done, done well, and done with all due haste.

What Creating a To-Don’t List Does for You

Just as important as planning what you will do is planning what you won’t. That’s not to say the activities on your to-don’t list aren’t worth doing. Maybe they are. But if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, you’re more likely to dive in and feel sick when you can’t digest everything than dive in and feel accomplished.

Put some things off in service of accomplishing other priorities.

If you have a great idea while you’re in the middle of accomplishing different great ideas, park it in your to-don’t list, and perhaps get to it later. But don’t make it a priority just yet.

By writing it down, you relieve the mental tax of trying to remember it. It’s captured in a safe place and you don’t need to worry about it. This is good. But it’s even better that you’re clear about what you’re doing and not doing.

When you park priorities versus put them on your active list, it allows you to focus on the smallest possible number of most important tasks. Then you can actually get them done.

Do a To-Don’t List

Creating a to-don’t list is difficult. You have to acknowledge good ideas — ideas you may really want to get to — and say, “Not now.” Creating a to-don’t list is so important that it’s one of the 27 productivity hacks shared in the e-book 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity.

In the article, “The Art of Strategy Is Knowing When to Say No,” Brain Halligan, Founder and CEO of HubSpot, shared how he wanted to expand into Europe. However, he knew he couldn’t do it well until he finished changing the company’s go-to-market focus. It pained him to say no (at that moment) to Europe and put the project on hold, but he did. A year later, he put Europe back in motion and succeeded.

If you want to get more done, add this to your to-do list today: Create a to-don’t list.

If you have 40 items on your list marked as priorities, you might as well have none.”

Mike Schultz | President, RAIN Group



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