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To do, or to don't

Published on 21-07-2016Email To Friend    Print Version

Does your day or week start with a “to do” list?  

Formally or informally, most of us live with to do lists. At work and around the house the idea is that they help us maintain focus, order and productivity.

The trouble is, many of those lists just seem to get longer and longer. For every item we mark as done, another one – at least – finds its way onto the list. And then there are those pesky items that just never seem to get done, continually signalling our failure.

Productivity guru Dave Allen notes that a key to having a useful to do list is that it needs to be about action. Clearly identifying the actions we need to take (the real “to do”) helps clarify what we aren’t going to do as well. Because we know we can’t do everything. But the ever-present danger is that a to do list can easily become filled with low-value, vague, distracting and unimportant things that get in the way of the important, rewarding and high value activities we need to focus our limited attention and energy on. Especially when we are in high demand.

As Tom Peters so eloquently puts it: we have to “weed the BS daily!”

Stephen Covey explained it like this in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: to create the space to say “yes” to important priorities we have to be able to say “no” to less important (although sometimes apparently urgent) things. Our actions and activities – the way we use our precious time – need to be aligned to our overarching goals, responsibilities and direction.

Covey explained that “We say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to things daily” and that “a center of correct principles and a focus on our personal mission empowers us with wisdom to make those judgments effectively”.  He said that “the essence of effective time and life management is to organize and execute around balanced priorities. Then I ask them this question: if you were to fault yourself in one of three areas, which would it be: 1) the inability to prioritize; 2) the inability or desire to organize around those priorities; or 3) the lack of discipline to execute around them ...?”

Covey said that while most people responded that they lacked discipline, he believed the real issue was a lack of clarity around their priorities. He was talking about not simply numbering things in order on a to do list but being clear about and focused on what is most important to us – what we value and what we believe in.

A to do list that isn’t aligned with what’s most important will simply sap our energy, creating busy-ness rather than productivity. A “to don’t” list can help clarify what is important and what isn’t. So, here are three simple suggestions for sorting out the “to don’ts”:

First, audit of your current to do list. Using Dave Allen’s principle, ask whether it’s clear what – if any – action you need to take in relation to each thing on the list? If there is no action or it’s not clear, maybe it’s not something you are able to do. Or it may be something you need to outsource to someone else.

Second, following your audit, identify and schedule the next action(s) you need to take for each of things that remain on your list. “In all my research, there is one consistent theme that keeps coming up,” says Kevin Kruse in Forbes “Ultra-productive people don’t work from a to-do list, but they do live and work from their calendar.”

This is a key shift from passive to do lists to productivity: what gets scheduled gets done, whether it’s a meeting, a holiday, a visit to the doctor or a block of time to work on a project. If it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get priority – and so, despite its presence on a to do list, it doesn’t get done. By default, unscheduled things become “to don’ts”.

“The key,” as Stephen Covey advised, “is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

What’s on your schedule today?

Aubrey Warren

Pacific Training & Development and Situational Leadership® Australia

Contact me for information about a range of practical development workshops for your teams including Situational Leadership®, DiSC and Communication at Work. Call or email me for more information ...  


Allen, D.

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The Business Library.

Kruse, K. (2015). Millionaires don’t use to-do lists. Forbes, (July 10).

Peters, T. (1999). The Brand You 50: Reinventing Work. Knopff.


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