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How to Harness the Remarkable Power of a "To Don't" List This list will allow you to spend less time on the things that aren't really important and more time on the things that require attention.

By Jason Zickerman

Key Takeaways

  • Lists can weigh you down, take some time to reflect and delegate your tasks.
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Are you one of those business owners who tend to create a never-ending stream of to-do lists? Maybe you even draw those little squares next to each task and feel a bit of a dopamine rush each time you check off another box.

To-do lists are such simple but effective task tools for busy entrepreneurs. Of course, in today's digital world, you might not be putting pen to yellow pad, opting instead for a scheduling or time management application. Whether high-tech or old-school, to-do lists serve a very important purpose in the life of an active business owner. They keep us on track, on task and on time.

Many of the more organized folks among us carve out time each evening to plot the coming day and prepare their to-do lists accordingly. However, that level of systematic mapping is not for everyone. Many successful people I know maintain a remarkable to-do list in their heads and tackle these tasks as they have the time. The reality is, in one form or another, all business owners have a running to-do list. And those lists can be overwhelming at times.

That is the dirty little secret about to-do lists. While they might feel comforting in that they allow us to gauge our progress related to our pending tasks, they mask the fact that many of those activities have no business being on that list in the first place. And when I say many, I really mean most.

So perhaps it is time for a different kind of list.

Related: 3 Traits Every Successful Entrepreneur Should Have

You're not supposed to do it all

I had a wonderful associate at The Alternative Board, the late great Steve Davies. He was in the office one day and noticed that I was drowning in an endless sea of tasks; my exhausting to-do list was truly unrelenting. I will never forget how Steve looked me straight in the eye, pointed at my list and said, "As the CEO of a global organization, you shouldn't be doing half of those things." I knew he was right, but nobody had ever mentioned it before.

Steve helped me to get things under control by insisting I put together what he called a To Don't List. He made it really simple. And it was a pivotal moment in my leadership journey.

Creating a To Don't list

Steve explained that I should keep a piece of paper or notepad in the top drawer of my desk. Then came the self-awareness part. He said that whenever I caught myself doing a task that I probably should not be doing, or that could be done more efficiently by someone else, I needed to pull out that sheet of paper and write the task down.

I want to be clear here. The items added to my To Don't List were not there because they were below my pay grade. They were not beneath me. They were simply tasks to which I didn't add any particular value and prevented me from executing higher-level strategic objectives for the organization. So they were prime candidates for delegation.

Then it was time for some reflection. Once a week or so, I was to review that list and pick one or two items just to stop doing. It was scarier and felt a little more daring than it sounds. I asked myself, who could do this better? Someone internally? Should it be outsourced? Or perhaps the task held such little value that it should be eliminated.

This was a big step in the right direction. Slowly but surely, my To Don't List allowed me to spend less time on the things that weren't really important and more time on the things that required my attention. Throughout the years, it has helped me increase my productivity tremendously.

Related: You Don't Have to Go It Alone. It's Time to Let Go and Let Others Help.

Tasks for your To Don't list

Every business owner is different, as is what is required of them to run a thriving company. But here are some common items you might consider as prime candidates for your own To Don't List.

Administrative Tasks: Particularly if you have a secretary or executive assistant, consider delegating the preponderance of scheduling and routine paperwork to someone else.

Daily Ops: Unless yours is a small business that lacks the staff to conduct day-to-day operations, like inventory or order processing, leave those tasks to your team – and refrain from micromanaging them while you are at it.

Technology Troubleshooting & Maintenance: If you have an IT team, consider them your resident experts. They likely don't need substantial input at a technical level, although you are likely still required strategically.

Routine Decision-Making: Your organization needs your vision. They need your leadership. What they don't need is for you to oversee every minor decision — delegate decision-making authority to trusted managers.

Employee Supervision: It is not your responsibility to babysit your team. They are professionals who are capable of performing their jobs without you breathing down their necks, so let them.

I sometimes wonder if my colleague Steve realized how positively and profoundly his simple advice on creating a To Don't List affected me as a business leader.

I hope it works for you too.

Jason Zickerman

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of The Alternative Board | Business Development and Growth Advisor

Jason Zickerman is the President and CEO of The Alternative Board, an international organization helping business owners and their leadership teams improve business and change lives.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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