Everyone knows about to-do lists. Some of you use them effectively, and others not so much, and some hate them and refuse to use them. Being a competitive person, and always wanting to feel accomplished, I have even from time to time on days when the list wasn’t getting shorter write down something I already did just so I could check it off.
Recently I was having a conversation with some other leaders about creating margin** in life. One of the ways I’ve tried to do this (not much success of late…but I’m working on it) is through an idea a friend shared a while back on his blog: a “stop doing” list. See here:
What if this evening at home, or tomorrow with your colleagues, you sat down and created a five item stop doing list? A list of five to-dos, whether related to work, people or other commitments or activities, you decide to stop pursuing. A few items on the list may take you time to work through, but you can develop a plan. To keep the habit up, every occasion you’re confronted with a new consequential to-do, reevaluate your stop doing list. Consider what you would throw out to make room for the new. If you wouldn’t cut anything, don’t accept anything. It’s an easy way to maintain balance and avoid feeling perpetually overwhelmed.
When talking about the stop doing list I always talk about urgency vs. importance. We tend to (because of human nature, I’d guess) focus on the things we perceive as most urgent (need to be done soonest) rather than what’s most important. Things that are urgent, but not very important, may not need to be done at all, and the time you spend on urgent, but unimportant tasks, steals from spending time on important, but not urgent tasks.
Candidates for the stop doing list? Two main categories: 1) something that someone else can d0 (often not quite as well as you) that can be delegated and 2) things that if they’re not done at all won’t matter all that much in the long haul.
One of the people in the conversation asked for examples of things I had put on my stop doing list in the past. It was funny because it caught me kind of flat-footed and I didn’t have an answer for him right off. I had to rack through my memory for things I’d taken off the list before. Once I started listing a few I realized something important: most of the things on your stop doing list are going to be things you like to do. Things that, given lots of margin, you’d choose to do just because you want to.
Busy people have usually already stopped doing delegatable or unimportant tasks that they don’t like. There’s incentive to stop doing things you hate, and so when you’re looking around for candidates for the list, there’s usually not much that you can stop doing that you desire to stop. So the list, when done right, will be full of stuff that you can stop doing but wish you didn’t have to. There are conferences and events that I love to attend that others go to instead of me now. Because I have to cut something and those are valid candidates. Do I miss attending those events? Oh yes. But less than I miss having even less margin in my life.
That’s what makes the stop doing list so hard: you have to cut out things you like. But if you’re going to focus on the most important things that only you can do, you have to find margin somewhere. And you can only cut so much sleep.
So find those things in your life that you can stop, and do just that. Stop doing that. You’ll be thankful for it later, even while embracing the sadness of the loss. Do the most important things, and the tasks that only you can do. You’ll be better rested and your work will be better for it.
** I hope to write a whole post on margin at some point, but won’t get into it much here except to say you need it, and this (the stop doing list) is one way to get some.