The Importance of a Not-to-Do List

By Heather Baldwin

What would happen if you did less work each day? If you whittled your massive to-do list down to just three items and concentrated on those three, first and foremost, every day before tackling anything else? You’re probably thinking: Yeah right. Everything would fall apart if I did that. Here, however, is the reality: If you do this – if you decide on three items that only you can do uniquely well to help the sales organization and you do them every day – you’ll do your job better and you’ll have more time for other priorities you keep putting off.

“Being clear on what you are not going to do is as important as knowing what you are going to do,” says Graham Alexander, a longtime executive coach and author of Tales From the Top: Ten Crucial Questions from the World’s #1 Executive Coach (Nelson Business, 2005). He adds that countless executives with whom he has worked have found that the “consistent discipline of identifying only three must-do things that will have the biggest effect on their business and team constituted a turning point in their careers.”

Take the example of a woman who took over as CEO of a billion-dollar global business that needed fixing in almost every department. A constant whirlwind of activity, she reluctantly agreed to try the three things challenge, electing to (1) phone her most important client and have a conversation about whether they were happy with the service her firm was providing; (2) get the leaders of sales and marketing – who refused to work effectively together – into her office to discuss the problems and how to resolve them; and (3) spend an hour a day thinking about the outcomes she wanted for an upcoming sales conference.

To do these things she was forced to eliminate many tasks. For example, she assigned someone to read the stack of magazines piled up in her office and to flag anything of importance to her; she stopped having her staff submit drafts of their meeting agendas for her blessing; she stopped attending breakfast networking meetings with other CEOs because they added little to her business; she stopped going line by line through all the financial reports; and she agreed to let the finance team indicate anything that required her attention. After just one week she was more relaxed, more energetic and remarked to Alexander: I’ve done a lot less, but I’ve been more effective than ever in my role this week. Colleagues had noticed, too, mentioning to her that they saw her as on top of the job rather than behind the eight ball. The only thing she lost, she said, was her guilt at not being busier.

Alexander says once you truly focus on your three most important tasks you’ll find a multitude of activities you can safely move from your to-do list to your not-to-do list. A managing partner in a professional service firm who had 120 items on his mental to-do list would regularly put in 17- or 18-hour days. Despite his long hours, which he perceived as dedication to the firm, turnover was high and employees were unhappy. Working with Alexander this partner committed to (1) spend an hour a day walking around the office chatting with employees; (2) write thank-you notes to employees for something he’d noticed; and (3) clarify and communicate the corporate business. It was a big struggle for this partner to let go of his sense that he wasn’t working hard if he wasn’t constantly busy and putting in long hours, but the payoff from focusing on these three critical tasks and letting other things go was enormous.

If you decide to try this three must-dos a day tactic, Alexander recommends letting someone know what you are doing and then conducting an in-depth review of the results at the end of each week. It’s also a good idea to put reminders in obvious places to keep you on track, such as changing your screen saver to list your three must-dos or tacking a note on your bathroom mirror so you’ll see it first thing in the morning. Finally, reward yourself when you stay on track. If you stick with this goal for a week buy yourself the CD you’ve been wanting. Do it for a month and take an afternoon at the spa. “Whatever will help you stay motivated, do it,” says Alexander.