The To Don't List || Engineering and Leadership

Last month, I put on a leadership seminar for a large group of engineers in Mississippi. My talk introduced some basic business and management concepts to engineers, including leadership, communications, professional development, and productivity. During the productivity talk, I shared one of my favourite quotes from management researcher Peter Drucker. In his 1963 book, Managing for Business Effectiveness, Drucker argues:

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.
– Peter Drucker, Managing for Business Effectiveness, 1963

This got people’s attention, and I’m glad it did. In my experience, there are plenty of people in the working world who are seeking to squeeze more out of their day and to get more done. There are relatively few, however, who are taking the time to determine which work they should be doing in the first place.

The distinction being made here is between effectiveness and efficiency. Efficiency is doing things with the minimum possible resources. Effectiveness is doing the right things. Both are critical to being productive, but most people only focus on being efficient.

The To Don’t List

This is where the to don’t list comes in. Everyone has a to do list. Unfortunately, to do lists tend to be filled with things that shouldn’t be done in the first place, which kills effectiveness, and thus, productivity. These items should be removed from your to do list and placed on your to don’t list so that you can manage them and free up time and energy to be more effective in your work.

Today, I’m going to help you create a to don’t list so that you can eliminate the work you shouldn’t be doing and focus your time and attention on the things that matter most.

The basic process is as follows:

  1. Create or review your goals
  2. Evaluate your backlog
  3. Eliminate bad tasks

I’ll go through each of these steps in detail below.

1. Create or Review Your Goals

Before you can possibly determine which tasks to focus on and which tasks to move to your to don’t list, you need to have specific goals in place. If you already have goals, review them first to remind yourself what it is you’re trying to accomplish. This is important because it can be very easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish in the bigger picture when mired in the minutiae of your daily work.

If you don’t have goals, welcome to the club! The majority of working professionals don’t have clear, concise goals with deadlines attached to them. But just because it’s normal not to have goals doesn’t make it good. Goal setting is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that you absolutely need to have goals in place in order to be productive.

As a starting point, set five to seven goals for yourself for the next twelve months. Make sure they are:

  • Supportive of your overall mission and vision
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

2. Evaluate Your Backlog

Now that you know what your goals are, you can evaluate the items on your to-do list to determine how well they align with those goals. Each item will either help or hinder your ability to achieve your goals. Tasks that don’t really help or hinder are still problematic because of the opportunity cost they represent – they get in the way of doing more important work.

To evaluate your goals, I recommend using a table like this:

Task Evaluation Table

I’ll explain each column from this table below:

  • Task: This is simply the task you are evaluating.
  • Goal impact: Decide if the task helps (+), hinders (-) or has no direct  impact (N/A) on the achievement of your goals. Remember, the “N/A” items still represent opportunity cost and should be avoided.
  • Urgent: Is the task urgent or not?
  • Important: Is the task important or not?
  • Priority: Each task gets a priority based on its urgency and importance, according to the table below, called an Eisenhower Priority Table:

  • Level of effort: an evaluation of the time and energy you think it will take to complete the task.

Once you’ve completed your evaluation and filled the table for all the tasks on your to do list, it’s time to decide what to do with each of your tasks so that you can improve effectiveness.

3. Eliminate Bad Tasks

Once you’ve evaluated all of your tasks agains your goals, you’ll have two categories of tasks: those that support your goals, and those that don’t. For those that support your goals, just do them! No need for anything more complicated than that.

For the tasks that don’t support your goals, some of them will be labeled as being priority 4 – neither important nor urgent. Just delete these from your list. They don’t matter and shouldn’t distract you from other work.

For the remaining tasks, you have four options with respect to dealing them. You can:

  1. Do the task
  2. Delegate the task
  3. Defer the task
  4. Partner up

Deciding which approach to take for each task requires judgement. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Below, I’ll give some guidance that can be applied most of the time.

Do the Task

The easiest way to eliminate a task is often just to do it. This is fine for tasks that don’t require a lot of effort and are a high priority.

Delegate the Task

If you have direct reports (lucky you!), then delegating the task can be a good option. Often, there will be people on your team who have the time, expertise, and desire to complete things that end up on your to don’t list. Remember: if you have direct reports, then it’s likely that it is your responsibility for keeping your people fed with work. This is a good opportunity to do just that. Don’t hog it all to yourself.

Defer the task

Deferring a task is a good option for tasks that are non-urgent. My experience, however, is that if a task is a poor fit for your goals today, it’ll probably be a poor fit tomorrow, too. This being the case, it’s likely best for you to simply do, delegate, or partner (see below).

Partner up

One way to get things done in a more effective manner is to partner with someone else in order to get the task done. If the task is large enough to parse out into subtasks, then there may be an opportunity to divide things in a way that allow you to do the part of the task that is relevant to you and your goals while allowing someone else to take on work that is better suited to them.

Next steps

Now, you’ve got both a to do list that actually supports your goals, and a to don’t list that gives you a clear sense for what you really shouldn’t be working on, and path for managing each item. The beauty of this is that now you know what to focus your time and energy on to be able to actually achieve your goals, which is a great feeling.

Moving forward, you’ll need to be careful about only adding items to your to do list that really belong there. This will mean being clear on your goals at all times and learning to say no to bad incoming work.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve gone through this exercise and what things you’ve added to your to don’t list. Use the comments section below to share your experience with the E&L community.

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