Skip to main content

Doesn’t it seem like no matter how hard you try, something always gets in the way of your to-do list? You begin the day confident that you will finish your goal with time to spare only to experience a mild sense of panic as time instead seems to fly by. 

You know you're not alone—being truly productive is a challenge for most of us. When it comes to productivity hacks, most of us think about creating to do lists, goal setting, and setting timers. But Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has a counter-intuitive approach: write out a “stop doing” list.

On his website, he shares how he mistakenly thought that having goals, objectives, and priorities were the only components of a productive work day. After a mentor challenged him to change his thinking, he reevaluated his approach to productivity. Collins writes:

“She then gave me what I came to call the 20-10 assignment. It goes like this: 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?”

Collins now uses this “what would you stop doing” question to drive his approach to productivity because it forced him to think about how he uses what he calls his “most precious of all resources:” time. Thinking about time as a limited resource encouraged him to be more mindful of the way he was using it.

While Collins writes about his “stop doing list” more broadly, writer Jocelyn Glei shares how she applies the stop doing list concept to her work day. Glei created a list of things she doesn’t do when she is trying to get work done. She doesn’t schedule meetings in the morning, doesn’t listen to music with words, doesn’t treat emails from strangers as urgent, and she doesn’t look at her email until she’s completed at least ninety minutes of what she calls “deep attention work” at the start of her day.

What are the advantages to creating a stop doing list? As Collins observed, it encourages you to take an honest look at the things that sap time from the work you want and/or need to be doing.

For instance, did I sit down at my computer to research for this article in an efficient and methodical manner? As much as I’d love for you to think that highly of my work ethic, sitting down to research involved a woeful amount of checking my favorite blogs, answering emails, and jumping from task to task as they came to mind. Creating a stop doing list would have helped me work more efficiently. After all, as much as we like to think it helps increase productivity, multitasking does not help us work more efficiently.

In fact, a Stanford University study found that people who multitask don’t pay attention or have as much control over their memory as those who focus on a single task at a time. The American Psychological Association cites research that suggests our productivity is cut by as much as 40 percent when we multitask due to the time it takes to switch between tasks. A “stop doing” list is a way to limit distractions and prevent losing time in the name of multitasking. By limiting these, we can better focus on the goal at hand and, in the end, be more productive.

What would your stop doing list look like? Observe your typical working pattern this week and look for time wasters that prevent you from being your best. Then, take ten minutes to add those detractors to a list and see if you notice any improvement once you’ve eliminated them.

You could even follow Glei’s lead and take it a step further by creating a “start doing” list in addition to your “stop doing” list. Some items include making her to-do list for the day the night before, keeping a variety of projects going at once so she can shift her focus to the project that best matches her energy and mood at any given time, and catching up with at least one interesting person a week.

Armed with these two lists, your coworkers will wonder what your secret to being so productive is!

Photo Credit: The Green Chameleon