Today I feel overwhelmed by my To-Do list. What I really need is a To-Don't list... The only problem: For a long time, I haven't had time to develop one.
With the start of a new year, I decided to identify some resolutions for things I need either to not do or to stop doing.
- Don't multitask. There may be some tasks when multitasking is fine -- like folding laundry while listening to a podcast -- but it often seems that multitasking takes longer to finish each of the tasks than if I handled them separately. So I'm going to try to monotask (as that a word?) -- focus on one task as time. And I will try to reduce distractions.
- Don't spend too much time on Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed. This will be a bit tricky since we help clients with social media. That said, it's one thing to be engaged on social media when working for a client and another because I'm bored or finding it hard to focus. I may have caught up with what friends are doing but I probably should pick up the phone and talk to some of those people. One strategy: to set strict limits on personal use to avoid the somewhat empty feeling I get -- the same as when I binge on junk food or crappy TV shows.
- Don’t put off the work that’s tough to do or is important but less interesting. No one likes doing the hard work, the heavy lifting, the sometimes-joyless tasks. But if you put off those tasks, you’ll never get them done, and they’ll weight heavier on you. So I’m going to try to start the day doing the least appealing but important tasks first, and then reward myself by handling the things I enjoy doing. I’m hoping knowing there’s something else I look forward to as soon as I finish the unpleasant task will serve as an incentive to more efficiently get through the dreaded work.
- Don't break my schedule into tiny bite-size units. I have a tendency to overschedule but I've found that when I give myself permission to block out an hour or two to do a project (rather than trying to squeeze time into any available free moment), the project is better, and completed more efficiently. The challenge is that work can expands to fill the time you have allocated -- like a meeting that should take only 30 minutes but expands to an hour because that's the amount of time we all agreed to. If we get everything done in a meeting in 40 minutes, I'm going to try to end the meeting and move on to something else on my list.
- Don't try to squeeze too much in. Overscheduling is a problem. The solution to back-to-back-to-back meetings and tasks isn't always to squeeze more things into less time or to multitask our way through meetings where we're paying half-attention. It gets worse if we let ourselves get distracted by emails, texts or notifications.
- Don't go to a meeting unprepared or without an agenda. I learned this lesson a long time ago and it's still important. You don't have to stick to the agenda but the process of thinking about an agenda and the goals for a meeting make it more productive than going in and trying to "wing it."
- Don’t rely on PowerPoint. When you have to give a presentation, you have to give a presentation. Sometime people feel they have to get through the presentation – so much so that they don’t interact with the others in the room. It's important to be flexible and make sure you answer when clients ask a question, even if you haven’t reached the section later in the presentation that addresses that question. It looks like you’re dismissing their concerns when you say, “I’ll get to that on slide 23.” We want sessions to be conversations rather than a droning presentation, and when clients ask questions, they’re telling you their priorities, concerns and interests, and it’s important to pay attention.
- Don't get caught up in crossing off everything on my to-do list. We all put a lot of pressure to get everything done but that's not always possible. Sometimes things come up that need to immediate attention. It's okay to carry some things over to another day. Especially because I should not let myself be ruled by my to-do list; for example, while I feel better keeping my desk organized, that's not a priority over more important, more immediate deadlines. So I will try to give myself permission to not cross off everything everyday -- of course, I still have to meet deadlines.
- Don't get upset that most things take more time than I estimate them. Sometimes things do take longer. The information I thought I had may not be as accurate or solid as it needs to be. Or it takes more back-and-forth with a reporter to schedule an interview. Not over-scheduling may help with this.
- Don't continue to do the same things the same way every day -- and expect that things will turn out different. That's Einstein's definition of insanity. Some routine is okay but you can't expect things to be different if you don't try alter your routines.
- Don't let evaluating things delay making decisions to seize opportunities. By that I mean, make sure to think about trying new things. Look at the pros and the cons, and then don't belabor things too long. Make a decision and jump.
- Don't forget to check in with the team and with clients. Don't assume everyone knows the status of projects or has all the information they have to get their jobs done. Sometimes emails get overlooked or forgotten. It's important to check in to make sure everyone has current info and expectations.
- Don't be so busy that I can't stop and look at the bigger picture for a client, team member or myself. Sometimes it doesn't take as much time as I think to consider the big picture. I was once at a strategy workshop when the leader asked, "How much time do you think it takes to make a strategic plan for a client?" The consensus seemed to be that it would take a couple of hours. Instead, the workshop led us through an exercise that got us developing a strategic plan within the hour.
- Don’t hope that bad news will disappear. No one likes confrontations but it’s better to address bad news as early as possible rather than hiding your head in the sand. You need to figure a solution and address it early because otherwise it can become a bigger issue.
- Don't feel the solution involves more of me. I've seen this with other small businesses. The boss thinks the only solution is for him or her to spend more time on a problem. Long-term, that doesn't work but the demands on the CEO are such that we need to be able to shift gears. My business is team oriented, and I need to keep the team engaged; another way of saying this is: don't overlook the talent and insight on the team -- make sure they're empowered to offer recommendations.
- Don't check email, various news sites constantly. In fact, during vacations, I've turned off all notices and alerts. They're too much of a distraction. But I'm also turning off the sound for text messages and emails when I need a solid block of time.
- Don't watch TV or Netflix when I have other things to do. That goes with the not wasting time on social media (number 2, above) but warrants, alas, it's own bullet even if I'm just entering time sheets for client billing.
- Don't forget to keep in touch with people I enjoyed working with. We all get so busy that we forget the personal -- the people we like working with. We do too much by text or by checking out their posts on social media but forget that that's not a substitute for actual conversations. Staying in touch with friends and colleagues is important even if it's not work-related.
- Don’t get too busy that I feel I can’t organize my desk. When you’ve got lots of deadlines, it’s easy to let things pile up on my desk. But eventually, the piles get overwhelming. When I started out, I used to joke that cleaning off my desk was basically my job: it meant that I had completed all my assignments. To an extent, that’s still true. Once I’ve filed (and throwing out or recycling is filing) things off my desk, I feel better and more organized. And I know I don’t have to clean the entire mass of piles at the end of the day; a little bit at a time is perfectly ok. So that’s what I’m going to do after posting this article.
- Don't try to get by with too little sleep. I will try to get more regular sleep. (Let's see how that goes.)
That's a big list, with some overlapping items. I will likely add more over time.
Meanwhile, here are a few To Do's that I want to incorporate:
- Set aside specific time to respond to email. Right now, I tend to let the sound of arriving emails distract me from whatever task is at hand. It can take minutes to recover from a distraction so I’m going to set aside time to answer emails. There will be exceptions such as if I’m expecting an important, time-critical email or on days when we have an important client news.
- Define what results look like. In other words, don’t assume everyone understands what the results should be. It’s important to spend time setting expectations in advance. At the same time, make sure the deliverables are relevant to the client so that it’s not like opening a pack of socks for your birthday when you expected an Xbox.
- Keep upgrading and changing skill sets and talents to fit the needs of an ever-changing marketplace. It’s easy to be so busy that you feel you don’t have time to learn or that you’re so good, you have nothing else to learn. You can’t succeed or continue to succeed by being complacent. You’ve got to continue to learn new approaches, look for new insights and understandings as the business world evolves. Sticking to what you used to do, and doing only the things that used to work, won’t get you very far. We have a client who pivoted his business three times, moving to where the market was heading, buying new equipment and either retraining current employees to get new skills or hiring new employees who had those skills. The results: the company made the Inc. 5000 of the Fastest Growing Private Companies for three years as a 20-year-old company, when many companies’ growth starts to slow down.
Need more motivation or insight? Here's what author Jim Collins said in a Bloomberg interview, "Good to Great Expectations: Jim Collins on getting to the next level":
"The imperative is to manage our time, not our work. This is why the whole question of balance and finishing our work is insane. There are only 24 hours in a day, so what difference does it really make if you work 10 hours or 14, given that there are a thousand potential hours of work? The real question is the incredible rigor of what goes into the hours you allocate.
"As I look at the most effective people we've studied, a 'stop-doing' list or not-to-do list is more important than a to-do list, because the to-do list is infinite. For every big, annual priority you put on the to-do list, you need a corresponding item on the stop-doing list. It's like an accounting balance.
"I’ve found that real change comes from genuine displeasure with oneself. Anything less -- including the usual 'I really need to...lose weight/get organized/exercise more often...' won’t survive the inevitable periods of stress we all experience at one point or another."
For other tips to be productive, check out the following:
- Inc.: “The Don’t-Do Lists.”
- Fast Company: “We’re terrible at planning our time. Here’s how to fix it."
- New York Times: “How to Stick to Your New Year’s Resolutions.”
- New York Times: “
- The Aha! Blog: “10 Things to Do at a Startup Every Wednesday.” Good tips even if you’re not running a startup.
I'm not a productivity expert and this list is more for me than trying to preach about some system to others, which is why I'm posting it on my blog (as opposed to trying to publish it somewhere).
I will try to check back at the end of the year to see how I did.