Forget The “To-Do” List, You Need A ‘Stop Doing’ List

Warren Buffett

It’s interesting to think about the things you want to accomplish in life and work towards those goals.

This is, after all, what we’ve been taught to do since birth. But over time we accumulate other habits and end up spending our time on things that aren’t important to us.

Jim Collins, author of the cult business classics Good to Great and Great by Choice, suggests an interesting thought experiment (reminiscent of Alan Watts) to help clean the windshield so-to-speak.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

What would you stop doing?

In his book How To Avoid Work, William J. Reilly offers the three most common reasons we give for not doing what we want.

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

Each of these, Reilly argues, “melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” Time is the key. “Without time nothing is possible.”

Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

We invest time consciously and unconsciously. If you believe the advice of the wisest Americans many of us think about how our time is spent at the end of our lives, only to find regret about how our precious resource was squandered on the meaningless.

Collins’ thought experiment is an attempt to help us think about how we’re spending our time today, when we can still do something about it to change our ways. We don’t want to wake up when we’re 80, for instance, and realize that we unconsciously allocated all of our thought and effort.

But the value of this experiment applies not only to people but to organizations. The velocity and complexity of problems is increasing. In part, to ward off this pressure and delegate decisions to lower levels, organizations respond with a perpetually increasing internal information velocity. New policies and procedures are easily added while legacy ones are slowly removed. Culturally we value decisions to add things more than we value decisions to remove things.

Echoing the words of Steve Jobs on focus, Collins writes:

(This) lesson came back to me a number of years later while puzzling over the research data on 11 companies that turned themselves from mediocrity to excellence, from good to great. In cataloguing the key steps that ignited the transformations, my research team and I were struck by how many of the big decisions were not what to do, but what to stop doing.

A lot of people wait until the start of the New Year to pause and reflect but there is no better time than now.

Collins also suggests that you ask yourself these three questions as “a personal guidance mechanism.” The answers can be used to course-correct.

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you are genetically encoded for — what activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense — what can you make a living at?

Think of the three circles as a personal guidance mechanism. As you navigate the twists and turns of a chaotic world, it acts like a compass. Am I on target? Do I need to adjust left, up, down, right? If you make an inventory of your activities today, what percentage of your time falls outside the three circles?

If it is more than 50%, then the stop doing list might be your most important tool. The question is: Will you accept good as good enough, or do you have the courage to sell the mills?

Question 3 is the most complicated, perhaps because in the ‘find your passion’ movement doing what you love will not necessarily lead to a living. Cal Newport argues the counter-point: following your passion is horrible advice.

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