When I got my first job, I was given one piece of advice over and over again: Say yes. Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, raise your hand for side projects, and generally go above and beyond.
Going above in your role is a great way to learn and grow. But sometimes, saying no is just as important.
First things first. You’re no doubt familiar with the to-do list. For some, that list is a source of motivation: “Only 10 more follow-up emails to send before I can leave for the day!”
For others, that list is a source of dread: “I’ll never get all of this done.”
Whichever camp you fall into, there’s one tool that will make your to-do list even more valuable: the “to-don’t” list.
As its name suggests, the to-don’t list itemizes all the things you won’t do throughout your day. Developed by Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, a to-don’t list helps focus you on what’s actually important and serves as a conscious reminder of what’s not.
A similar concept, the “stop-doing” list, was coined by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Collins’ spin on the list called on readers to use the list to cut out bad habits.
The key difference between a to-do and a to-don’t list is how regularly you update them. A to-do list should be primarily composed of tasks, and therefore needs to be modified frequently. But a to-don’t list functions more like a set of guiding principles — guardrails that keep you focused on what’s necessary to your success.
For example, if you’re frequently derailed by coffee breaks with coworkers, you could limit yourself to one break in the morning and one in the afternoon. Or, if you find yourself rambling on sales calls, remind yourself to listen more than you speak.
Sometimes, just having a visual reminder of your bad habits is enough to keep you from slipping back into them. And reminding yourself what’s not important frees up your time to focus only on what matters.
What does a to-don’t list actually look like? Use the guiding questions in the infographic below to create your own, and check out what Daniel Pink includes on his to-don’t list.
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