While it might feel satisfying, or even addictive, to build an ambitious to-do list and goal list, productivity is not about turning your schedule into a game of Tetris, cramming as much as humanly possible in your day and your life. The difference between getting more done and getting the most of your life is also knowing what not to do.
A few years ago, I was inspired by an article I read around New Year’s that suggested starting off the year with a “Stop Doing” list which I took to heart and have turned into a ritual. As part of my annual goals and planning, I create a ‘Stop Doing” list, which gets me to focus on the things I need to give up. A hectic schedule can often preclude the active reflection that creating a Stop Doing list demands, but adopting this practice has been a worthwhile investment for both my professional and personal life. As someone who doesn’t like to quit anything I start, I finally realized that to make room for the new, something had to give.
When you know what matters to you, a Stop Doing list ensures that you have the time to focus on it.
If you’re interested in creating a Stop Doing list, here are 5 tips to get you started (or should I say, stopping):
1. Develop a ten-year, five-year and one-year plan in that order.
In order to prioritize for the short-term, you must understand where you are going in the long-term. A ten-year plan might seem lofty, but having a high-level view empowers you to set goals within the next five years and, in turn, within the next year that are aligned with and will move you towards this vision.
Having these plans clarifies what your priorities must be in the short term to reach these goals and what you are doing that won’t help you get there.
As an example, although operations is a strength of mine, I have started to pull back from many operations roles that I once played in my business in order to focus more on higher value areas for business growth. I realized that I could not get the business where I wanted it to go if I didn't make some tough choices.
2. Follow the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle holds that 80% of your results come from 20% of the efforts, which also means that the inverse is true for where you are spending 80% of you time. When it comes to your Stop Doing list, this concept reframes your schedule and focus with a results-oriented approach.
For example, when it comes to the 80% of your customers who are driving 20% of revenue, your energy is likely better shifted towards engaging top performing 20% as those are going to drive the results.
The same is actually true for friendships. Rather than spending all that time catching up with people whom you see once a year and don’t keep in touch with otherwise, invest your energy in the relationships that produce the most enjoyment and value for you and let some of the other plans just fall off.
3. Resist energy drains.
You only have so much energy to expend each day. If your primary motivation for seeing certain people is fueled by obligation or guilt, this is not a wise use of your time. Self development expert Dandapani refers to this phenomenon as “energy vampires.” He cautions that entrepreneurs tend to be especially susceptible to energy vampires.
When you’re productive, you should feel energized, not drained. Know the people and activities in life who bring you energy and prioritize your time with them, not energy vampires. You will feel completely different spending 4 hours on something that gives you energy rather than drains it.
4. Have a firm grasp of your core values.
Understanding what drives you – your “why” in life – makes it much harder to reconcile activities that go against your values as these activities will just not feel productive or inspiring. As someone who seeks to find a “better way,” I prefer to work with smaller organizations where I can apply my experience for new ideas and growth and drive improvement and change.
This extends to how I think about opportunities to give back. I tend to eschew nonprofit initiatives that are mired in politics, where the organization is not in a position to improve, or where involvement necessitates many board meetings and formal processes. These are all things that drain my energy and there is someone better than me for that type of role.
5. Determine the Return of Investment (ROI) for your To-Do’s.
Whether emotional or financial capital, every item on your to-do list has an ROI. If your task can be delegated and that time is better allocated to more value-aligned endeavors, it’s probably a good candidate for your Stop Doing list.
Recently, my wife and I examined the time we spent shopping for organic foods at 2-3 stores each week. Now we use a great new delivery service (Instacart), which gets us about 80% of what we need in 20% of the time. When I have told others about it, many remark that they like to choose their own produce. Do Instacart shoppers sometimes pick an imperfect orange? Sure. Is eliminating that risk worth 2 more hours of time we get to spend as a family? Absolutely not.
In a culture that often conflates busyness for productivity, defying the urge to mistake motion for action is an ongoing battle.
When I created my first Stop Doing list, I was surprised how liberating it became and keeping it in focus empowers me to reach my goals while spending more time doing what I love.
If that’s not productive, I don’t know what is.