Folks enjoyed my post about “To Do” list hacks, so I’d like to share another of my favorites (or two, or three. Okay, four).
I came up with this back in 2012, when creating a weekend kanban board with my son.
I knew from experience that a big chunk of the “work” I would do was tasks I hadn’t planned. I just pretended they were important but they were procrastination tactics.
The “To Don’t” List Hack
I decided to address the problem of made up work with a list of things I wouldn’t do to distract myself, and I called it my “To Don’t” list.
Building My “To Don’t” List
I started by adding the obvious things, like “check email” but as I thought about it, I realized that there are a lot of things that I just do that don’t have to be done, or don’t have to be done this weekend. On this particular weekend, I wanted to spend time with my son. When I’m feeling aimless around the house, I tend to clean the bathroom, do the ironing, plan and shop for a meal and other such stuff that is easily justified (needs to be done, right?) and that I can safely be sure my wife won’t mind. But if at the end of the day the house was spotless, the laundry done, a great meal is laid on the table, and my inbox is empty, but I hadn’t gone rollerblading with my son, I would have failed in my most important goal. So all those things went on my “To Don’t” list.
I remember my son asked me not to go into the office (something I used to do way too much on weekends). I hadn’t planned to, but putting it on the “To Don’t” list made him feel better and made it a commitment for me.
How to Build Your Own “To Don’t” List
I know my own insidious little tricks for guiltless procrastination, but if you’re not clear on what you do to feel good about yourself while not doing what you know you ought to be doing, here’s a simple exercise to find out. Put a pad of paper on your desk, a sheet of paper on the refrigerator, or a small notepad in your purse (not in the bottom under the three-year-old chapstick) and for one day write down EVERYTHING that you do. Every call you make, every time you open your email or check Twitter, everything. The next day, review your list and look for the following:
- Things you did that were not on your “To Do” list
- Things you regret doing
- Accomplishments that you’re not proud of today
- Things that didn’t advance your goals
- Anything that seemed important at the time, but now doesn’t look important
The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, helped me to understand the difference between a useful list, and the other kind. If a list is too long, you won’t use it. If it’s too obvious, you won’t respect it. If it’s not accurate, you won’t trust it. Don’t just write down every time-waster you find, pick the ones that surprise you. Choose the few that took a lot of your time, more than you would have expected. Maybe the ones you don’t remember doing, because they were so automatic. Make sure they matter, that they’re likely to come up again and they are real time-sucks. That’s your “To Don’t” list. Try to pick the two or three or four things that are most likely to keep you from finishing your “To Do” list today.
Now, don’t do any of those things today, and see how much more time you have for what’s important.
What to do with all that free time? A Fun Kanban Hack
An interesting thing happened when I had my “To Don’t” list done. Once I knew I wouldn’t be doing housework or wasting time on the internet, my weekend plan looked skimpy. So I started adding things that I knew would make me happy. “Learn Something” “Make both my wife and son laugh at the same time” and “Break a pattern” became tasks. That day I had tea instead of coffee in the morning, learned how Quasars worked, and paid a lot more attention to my family than usual. My wife was sick that day, so getting her to laugh took careful timing, effort, and empathy. Those tasks turned out to be so fun, challenging, and satisfying that I try to have at least one task like that every day.
Imagine starting your day with a to do list like:
- File budget report with accounting
- Get to Inbox Zero
- Find something I have in common with a co-worker I don’t know well
- Draft a blog post
That’s short and doable, with room to adapt to all the stuff that comes at you during the day. Guess which task will probably be the most satisfying. A “To Don’t” list may be just what you need to create the time for those personal growth goals that feel so good at the moment and pay off so much in the long run.
But wait, there’s more!
So I set out to share one new productivity hack, and I shared two — the “To Don’t” list and a fun way to make better use of that time. So here’s another, since I’m on a roll.
Make It a Team Sport
Why not try “To Don’t” lists with your team Kanban as well? Imagine agreeing as a team to add “Don’t criticize someone else’s code” or “Don’t commit without a hallway test” to your team “To Don’t” list. These sort of lists can become the “explicit policies” that make up the often disregarded component of a mature Kanban process improvement system.
Or a team could have tasks that not only to help the product but the team as well. “Pair with a tester to fix a bug” or “Refactor an unfamiliar component” can build new skills and strengthen team bonds while improving the product.
If you put your “To Don’t” list on your Kanbanery board, the best place is right after the first column. That way, if you’re using the metrics it won’t interfere with the lead and cycle time calculations, and you see it every time you pull a task to work on. If you have the “staleness” feature turned on, it will remind you to reconsider your “To Don’t” list from time to time.
If you have other suggestions for team or individual “To Do” or “To Don’t” lists, please share them with everyone in the comments.