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Why Your Not-To-Do List Is More Important Than Your To-Do List

Published
July 15, 2008
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Bottom Line Personal
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And other ways to boost productivity

We all have the same 24 hours in a day, yet some people accomplish so much more than others. What are their secrets? Here are the best ways to boost productivity from some of the brightest minds on the subject…

SMARTER STRATEGIES

  • Apply the 80/20 rule to everything. Roughly 20% of your daily activities are responsible for 80% of your success, income and personal happiness. These are your “big-payoff” activities.

    Conversely, 20% of your activities are causing 80% of your wasted time. These are your “low-payoff” activities.

    The best way to multiply your productivity is simple — always be looking to free up more time for your big-payoff activities by ruthlessly eliminating the dozens of low-payoff ones that you unwittingly tolerate.

    Example: One of the most successful executives I know keeps a framed sign over his desk and carries an index card in his shirt pocket with the same message — Is this leading me to my main goal? He checks that reminder numerous times a day and saves countless hours each week by staying on track — cutting off quickly from time-wasting phone calls, meetings, gossip, etc., and relentlessly getting back to the big-payoff activities for himself and his company.

  • Harness your “hour of power.” Whatever your highest-payoff activity, rise early and give it the first hour of your day — what I call your “hour of power.” This gets your day off to a highly productive start.

    The late Earl Nightingale, a management guru, explained that if you spend this early-morning hour in the study of your chosen field, you’ll be a national expert in five years or less.

  • Gain six to eight extra hours of productivity every day. Your second-most-productive hour is right before you go to sleep. This is a great time to leverage your productivity by arranging for your mighty subconscious mind to solve a problem while you sleep peacefully.

    How to do it: Just before going to bed, think about a problem or question that you’re working on. Then say to yourself, Great subconscious mind, I don’t want to work on this matter too hard, so please just figure this out for me by the morning while I sleep peacefully. Then completely forget about the matter and drift off to sleep.

    You’ll likely find that during your hour of power the next morning, you will be brimming over with ideas that are perfect for your project. Be aware that your morning ideas are slippery fish. If you don’t catch them immediately on getting up, they’ll swim away forever. Keep a pad and pen at your bedside to capture your ideas.

  • Don’t carry your “to-do” list in your head. You not only will forget things that are on the list, but an inner voice will perpetually nag that you must be dropping balls somewhere. Use a written to-do list to capture everything you must remember — every phone call, task and follow-up action. Review the most urgent and important items daily, and all items weekly.

  • Don’t multitask. As Confucius said, “A man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Modern studies show that when you try to accomplish two activities that require focused attention at the same time, both suffer significantly.

  • Slow down. When focusing on one high-priority item at a time, don’t rush through it. You do your best thinking when you are focused and relaxed. As Mae West advised with a wink, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

  • Get enough sleep. Research shows that your productivity, clarity, alertness, judgment, creativity, memory, motivation, relaxation, cheerfulness and lots of other wonderful qualities all thrive on adequate sleep and suffer without it. Also consider an afternoon nap — one of life’s most rejuvenating luxuries.

  • Do what you love. It’s much easier to be productive when your work is your play. You will want to give it your full attention and every minute you can — and you easily will brush off countless distractions that seduce others. So in all of your activities and goals, and especially when deciding which to choose as your highest priorities, remember the words of editor and author Christopher Morley, “There is only one success — to be able to spend your life in your own way.”

YOUR “NOT-TO-DO” LIST

Your not-to-do list is even more important than your to-do list. You must work every day to minimize or get rid of those 20% of activities that are wasting 80% of your time — by maintaining a not-to-do list. Helpful…

  • Never answer e-mail in the morning. Reserve your precious morning time for your highest-payoff activities. Also, shut off your e-mail program for most of the day so that you won’t be interrupted by each new incoming message. Limit reviewing your e-mail to specific periods, perhaps once around noon and again later in the day. Keep replies short with answers such as, “Thanks”… “Look forward to it” … “Will do”… or “I agree.”

  • Don’t answer phones just because they ring. Too often, it is a salesperson, fund-raiser or other pesky soul out to waste your time and ruin your focus. Have an assistant or answering machine screen your calls, or let them go to voice mail. As psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of Crazy Busy, says, “If you don’t manage your time, it will be taken from you.”

  • Flex your no muscle. Whenever someone asks you to do something that you would rather not do, remember this simple two-part formula — (1) “Thanks for asking” (for having confidence that I could do this, etc.), (2) “I can’t, because… ” (you’ve just been given a major new assignment or whatever) “so I wouldn’t be able to give it the time that it deserves.” If the petitioner persists, don’t debate the issue. Just keep robotically repeating your reason for declining, and the person soon will let you alone.

    Of course, if the person making the request is your boss, remember that he/she is your number-one customer and that it’s important to be on the same page about what’s important. Sound out whether this new request supersedes your current tasks. In other words, know what is most important at all times, and put your focus there.

    Ask two questions of every task: (1) Does this have to be done? (2) If so, does it have to be done by me? In all matters, strive to be not just efficient but effective. Efficient means doing things right, but effective means doing the right things — which is far more important.

  • Delegate the kaizen way. If you’re a control freak and can’t delegate easily, do it the kaizen way. Kaizen is the Japanese approach of continuous improvement with small, nonthreatening, easy-to-take baby steps. Ask someone to do a small task for you. As soon as you’re comfortable with one delegation baby-step, take another, and so on. It’s easier to get 10 people to work for you than for you to do the work of 10.