Why You Need a Not-to-Do List

Last Updated Aug 24, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

This morning I was speaking with a friend about getting her driver's license renewed. She said she knew of one location where the lines were always short, but it took more than an hour to get there. Her justification for going there: She'd rather be driving than standing in line. "At least I'd be moving," she insisted.

It occurred to me that many people in business think the same way. As long as they're moving -- doing something, ANYthing -- it is better than doing nothing.

It's not true.

In "The Goal" (a classic business book from the 1980s), author Eliyahu M. Goldratt concludes that you are only productive when the action you take moves you towards the entire system's goals ( i.e. profit, return on capital, positive cash flow). Movement, just for the sake of not being idle, makes you unproductive.

Just because everyone is "busy" and working long and hard hours, doesn't mean you'll necessarily get the results you want or expect.

Steve, my VP of operations, has a similar idea about productivity. He likes to say that only perfect practice makes perfect and he uses a sports analogy to illustrate: When a golfer continues to practice an imperfect swing, is that productive? Sure, it's productive -- but only if you want to be consistently inconsistent.

So what's to be done? How do you prevent your team from falling into the trap of moving just for the sake of moving?

One of the best pieces of advice that I've received on the topic comes from Jim Alampi, a popular business consultant who speaks to my CEO peer group. Jim will tell you that your to-do list is incredibly important. But drawing up your NOT-to-do list -- all of the items that distract you from your goal -- is just as critical.

I did this exercise recently for my company Blinds.com and we were at risk of letting two things derail us from our larger goal. Here's what's on our not-to-do list:

1. Website improvements. Our customers have been asking for these, but we can't do them until we work on our technology infrastructure to handle the additional load.

2. Add more products to the site. Again, we'd like to do this but we can't until we hire a vendor liaison first to manage those new products.

They're both important things to do eventually and they would likely add to our revenue, if done right. But if we were to spend our energy on them now, our processes would be so inefficient that our customers would feel the confusion. And that would minimize the number of repeat purchases and referrals (both required for high profits). Right now, both items would be little more than distractions.

There's one more step that I think is crucial to evaluating and improving your productivity. After you've drawn up your not-to-do list, go back to your to-do list and add one more item: Do nothing. Plan to drop everything you're doing for an hour, a day, a week, or whatever you have time for. When you stop moving entirely, you'll get a much better perspective on all of your other activities. Are all of them moving you closer to the right goal? You know what to do if they aren't.

Readers: Have you ever deluded yourselves with perpetual motion? What are the warning signs and red flags that signal you're not actually being productive?

(For more on why doing nothing actually makes you more productive, I'd recommend reading Dr. Jim Loehr's insightful book, "The Power of Full Engagement.")
  • Jay Steinfeld On Twitter»

    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.

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