The Don’t-Do List

Related to this is the don’t-do list, also essentially seen in Q4 of the Eisenhower matrix. Most people know what they should be doing but not what they shouldn’t be doing. This is where you eliminate tasks that (1) are insignificant, (2) are a poor use of your time, (3) don’t help your bottom line or end purpose, and (4) have a serious case of diminishing returns the more you work on them.

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After all this talk about Q1 and Q2 thinking, it becomes clear that sometimes we just need to eliminate tasks like we do in Q4. This final section provides another perspective on what to eliminate from your to-do list and thus life.

Too many things have the potential to command our focus, and sometimes we can’t differentiate between what we should avoid and what actually deserves our attention. We also may feel that everything is urgent and important. Thus, the focus of this section is to make crystal clear what you should be avoiding.

Now, everyone knows the value of the to-do list. No doubt you’ve stumbled across tips elsewhere about using a to-do list to increase productivity and your ability to take action. My point is that everyone inherently kind of knows what they should be doing and when they need to do it by. The act of writing it down just helps remind them and keep them accountable. This makes them more likely to do what they know they should be doing—more than if they didn’t have such a list.

But not everyone knows what they shouldn’t be doing. Each day, we’re faced with trying to figure out what will create the biggest impact for us—and sometimes we spend time we don’t have trying to make this choice. Again, we all know the obvious evils to avoid when trying to upgrade productivity: social media, goofing around on the Internet, watching The Bachelorette while trying to work, or learning to play the flute while reading.

It can be difficult to distinguish between real tasks and useless tasks, and it will require some hard thought on your part. If you’re lucky, you may find that you put almost everything onto your don’t-do list, leaving an obvious path for you to take action.

You need to fill your don’t-do list with tasks that will sneakily steal your time and undermine your goals. These are tasks that (1) are insignificant, (2) are a poor use of your time, (3) don’t help your bottom line or end purpose, and (4) have a serious case of diminishing returns the more you work on them. If you continuously waste your time on these tasks, your real priorities will fall by the wayside. I’ve identified three general types of tasks to put on your don’t-do list:

First are tasks that are priorities, but you can’t do anything about them at present because of external circumstances. These are tasks that are important in one or many ways but are waiting for feedback from others or for underlying tasks to be completed first. Put these on your don’t-do list because there is literally nothing you can do about them!

Don’t spend your mental energy thinking about them. They’ll still be there when you hear back from those other people. Just note that you are waiting to hear back from someone else and the date on which you need to follow up if you haven’t heard back. Then push these out of your mind, because they’re on someone else’s to-do list, not yours. The ball is in someone else’s court, for better or worse.

Second are tasks that don’t add value as far as your main goals and projects are concerned. There are many small items that don’t add to your bottom line, and often, these are trivial things—busywork. Do they really require your time? For that matter, are they worth your time? These tasks are just wasted motion for the sake of motion and don’t really matter in the big picture. This is where we come to differentiating between aimless motion and actual intentional action.

They are easily disguised as each other, right down to the fact that they both feel good to engage in. However, one delivers an outcome that you want (action), and the other is something that doesn’t accomplish anything in the end (motion). You can spend a lot of time investigating gyms and researching workout routines, but if you never step foot inside of one, that’s a whole lot of wasted motion running on a hamster wheel.

So you should spend your time on bigger tasks that speak to your overall goals and not myopic, trivial tasks. Often, these are useless tasks disguised as important ones, such as selecting the paint color for the bike shed in the parking lot of the nuclear power plant you are building.

Third, include tasks that are current and ongoing but will not benefit from additional work or attention paid to them. These tasks suffer from diminishing returns.

These projects are just a waste of energy because while they can still stand to improve (and is there anything that can’t?), the amount of likely improvement will either not make a difference in the overall outcome or success or will take a disproportionate amount of time and effort without making a significant dent.

For all intents and purposes, these tasks should be considered done. Don’t waste your time on them, and don’t fall into the trap of considering them a priority. Once you finish everything else on your plate, you can then evaluate how much time you want to devote to polishing something.

If the task is at 90% of the quality you need it to be, it’s time to look around at what else needs your attention to bring it from 0% to 90%. In other words, it’s far more helpful to have three tasks completed at 80% quality versus one task at 100% quality.

When you consciously avoid the items on your don’t-do list, you keep yourself focused and streamlined. A don’t-do list enables you to know exactly where your path should lead and what action to take first. When you’re at a fork in the road and each fork looks equally appealing, you’re going to be stuck in analysis paralysis (a perpetual debate between options that leaves you motionless in reality). Eliminate some of those forks right off the bat.

Practical Self-Discipline: Become a Relentless Goal-Achieving and Temptation-Busting Machine (A Guide for Procrastinators, Slackers, and Couch Potatoes) By Peter Hollins

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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