Why You Need a “Don’t Do” List (For Effortless Productivity)

How important is productivity in your life? Do you waste your time on trivial tasks, or focus on the big ones that make the most impact? Here's what to do.


trim your to-do listThanks to all of my recent travel, I’ve spent the past few weeks perpetually behind on everything. I’ve got piles of reminders on my desktop. I’m regularly replying to emails with the intro: “Hey, sorry it took so long for me to respond …”

Most people suggest time management techniques. “Try this app,” they’ll say. “It’ll help your efficiency.” Or “try these keyboard shortcuts.” Or “try this efficiency software.”

But time management is a tactic. And at a certain point, more tactics aren’t the answer — they’re just a bandaid. Ruthless culling is the permanent antidote.

In other words: I don’t need more apps and tools in my life. I need less.

Ruthless Culling

I know, I know: “ruthless culling” sounds like a bloodsport.

But the reality is: There are a bazillion tasks that can fill our workday. And about 90 percent of those tasks are pure crap. Most of us fill our time with small, insignificant projects that are designed to make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, but that won’t move the needle. It won’t get us closer to our goals.

You’ll get zero benefit from being hyper-efficient at useless tasks.

What do I mean by “useless?”

Here’s an example: You decide to be a millionaire. You want a net worth of $1,000,000 among all your combined accounts within the next 10 years.

You know the basic formula: earn, save, invest. But you get hung up on the details of that formula.

Earn: You could create a product or service that’s ultra-awesome. But dammit, that takes time. And you want the money now. After all, every month you delay investing carries an opportunity cost of $80 gazillion after 579 years of compounding interest.

So instead of thinking big, you reach for the low-hanging fruit. You get a job for $12.50 an hour (or $17 an hour, or $22 an hour) rather than launching your own enterprise. But hey, your job provides free dinner! What more could you aspire to?

Save: You agonize for hours over every tiny purchase. $6 for dishwashing liquid? You could stack a store coupon on top of a merchant coupon on top of a rewards card, and buy it for $4. That’s a 33 percent discount! Ha! Stick it to the man!

Invest: Should you keep 40 percent of your portfolio in domestic large-cap funds? Or 44 percent? The portfolio analysis at Vanguard says your exposure to international funds is 2 percent too heavy. But the portfolio analysis at Schwab says its 2 percent too light. Ahhhh!

Can you relate? Me too.

Most of us are guilty of this — myself included. I used to eat free samples from the grocery store in place of lunch. (Granted, that was during college). I used to shuffle small sums of money between savings accounts because one offered an interest rate that was 0.5 percent higher than the other. (Total extra earnings: maybe $10 per year).

This is useless. It’s all so massively friggin’ useless. None of this will move the needle. It won’t get you closer to millionaire-dom. But it will boost your ego and give you the illusion of accomplishment.

Why Your Business Won’t Get Off the Ground

Here’s another example:

Let’s say that your goal is to quit your 9-to-5 day job and build an online business that’s location independent. You’ve decided to start a website that sells dog-lover items (collars, bowls, etc.) to an upscale, eco-friendly crowd.

You get home from your 9-to5 at a terrible, soul-crushing cubicle farm, wolf down a quick dinner, and start working on your business. Your BIG tasks — the things that will actually move the needle — include:

  • Set up the website
  • Find suppliers
  • Find a fulfillment / shipping company
  • Install an e-commerce cart
  • Promote the heck out of it

There we go. Five big steps, with lots of micro-tasks in the middle.

Now let’s say that you become STUCK on the details of these micro-tasks. While you’re setting up the website, you agonize over Design A vs. Design B. You like the layout of A, but you like the graphics on B. You email 5 friends, asking for their feedback. The votes split 3-to-2. Darn.

You install A. Then you change your mind. You uninstall A, and try to install B. But there’s a bug in the system, which you have to troubleshoot. CSS read error? You can fix that … in a few hours.

Meanwhile, you’re struggling to write the website’s text. You draft and edit and re-write your homepage. You toy with the placement of the ‘contact’ form. You check out 50 other dog-supply websites to gain inspiration.

Two weeks pass by. Your buddies ask if your site’s running yet. “Still fine-tuning it,” you reply. You want to launch with a bang. You want it to be perfect.

Another two weeks pass by. You manage to get the site up. The evenings you spend “building your business” pass by in a blur of email and social media. You tell yourself you’re ‘promoting’ the site. Social media is good for business, right? Strangely, though, you’re not growing. Your income seems to be stagnant.

Sound familiar? Show of hands?

Will This Move the Needle?

Ninety percent of the game is showing up. The other 10 percent is fine-tuning.

Unfortunately, people waste countless hours on tasks that don’t matter. When your website is as big as Google, go ahead and devote countless hours to fine-tuning and optimizing. At that scale, optimization matters.

But if you’re a startup, focus on the few, rare things that will move the needle. Dump everything else.

And here’s the challenge: other wantrepreneurs will ask you about X or Y. “Have you tried this?” “Have you done that?” Your answer should be a swift and ruthless no. Cluttering your schedule — and cluttering your mind — is even worse than living in a true-life episode of Hoarders.

A few parting tips:

#1: Before you do anything, ask yourself: “Will this move the needle?” If the answer is no, move on.

#2: Image that every single task that you perform is getting outsourced to someone who charges $15 per hour. (And obviously, you pay this money from your own pocket). Now … do you spend your time doing tasks that are worth at least $15 per hour? Would you pay a qualified person $15/hr to mimic your workday?

If the answer is ‘no,’ you’re wasting time. And you’re selling yourself short. If you wouldn’t pay someone just-barely-more-than-minimum-wage to perform a task, then why the heck are you doing it yourself?!

Remember: What you DON’T do is just as critical as what you do. Your time and energy are limited. Ruthlessly cull your tasks. Focus on the few, best moves for maximum results.

Thanks to Carissa GoodNCrazy for today’s photo.


  1. says

    I don’t recall where you’re located, but the national minimum wage level in the USA is currently $7.25/hour. So $15/hour is more than twice the minimum wage, not “just-barely-more-than.”

    Great article, other than that distracting bit in the penultimate paragraph. :)

    • says

      @Rich — I still say it’s barely-more-than. A measly extra $7/hr isn’t going to move the needle significantly. It’s better than nothing, but it’s deep in “low wage” territory.

  2. says

    James Altucher came out with a great article yesterday about the power of “no”: http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2013/09/how-the-power-of-no-saved-my-life/

    When I was building my last business, I discovered that when I was doing the non-needle-moving tasks, it was because I was simply procrastinating over executing on the important but difficult tasks that I needed to do to move the business forward. (shh…don’t tell my cofounders, but…) Once I got over myself and actually focused on revenue generating activities rather than all of the other nitnoid activities, I went from 60-70 hours a week to 20-30, and revenues went from 6 digits to 7 digits.

    I have come to accept, hopefully with grace, that if something is important enough, it will get done. If something does not get done, it’s because that task was simply not important enough in my life.

    • says

      @Jason — Isn’t it amazing how that “leap of faith” (having enough confidence in yourself to start hiring out your mundane tasks and dropping the unimportant) can really move the needle, far more than any self-pep-talk ever could?

  3. says

    Paula, I needed this article right now. I sometimes get caught up in the mud of the mundane and lose sight of the big picture tasks. Funny, I am trying to work on an online e-commerce site. This article really hit home.

  4. says

    Paula, great article!

    I’m often guilty of doing things that don’t move the needle with my business. I’ve learned through countless wasted hours that when you don’t have a clear focus, then anything seems like it’s worth doing.

    Thanks for reminding me the importance of not doing useless stuff!

  5. says

    I can’t really relate too much to this article. Although I recently started a blog, it’s not intended as a alternative income stream.

    In fact I enjoy the endless tinkering on different things, I’ve spent hours fiddling with CSS and with Photoshop. I guess its part of doing something new which i find enjoyable.

    Having said that, going forwards its probably a good idea to prioritize tasks in a way to eliminate unproductive work.

    I’ve got a question. Do you currently actually employ other stuff to now do the mundane work that you talk about, or do you just choose to ignore it totally and focus on the more bang for your buck tasks?

  6. says

    Thank you for this article. I need to print it out and post it where I see it all the time. Just think, reading this article moved the needle! (in the sense that I will stop doing the other things that don’t move it…)

  7. says

    Funny I am so guilty of this. Working on the little things that won’t “move the needle”. It’s like you was watching me at home work on my blog haha. The “Design A or B” type stuff really distracts me but as time goes on I am getting better at focusing on the larger tasks.

    Outsourcing some of my duties would be nice also because time is as valuable as money. I needed this article. Thanks!

  8. says

    When I was starting my business I thought the same way as you mentioned above in that everything would turn out perfectly. I built my store website but I didn’t launch it because I wanted everything to look perfect and it’s been 5 month now and I still haven’t completed it yet. I think you are right that I should focus on the few, rare things that will move the needle and dump everything else. I will try to finish the site as soon as possible and launch it soon so I can generate some revenue.

    • says

      @Hunain — Get that store website up! You’ll have plenty of opportunity to “iterate” on the design AFTER it’s live. Don’t forget: “perfect” is the enemy of “good.”

  9. says

    I am guilty on obsessing over minute details that no one notices (or cares about) other than me. This is applicable to all aspects of life, and I am learning to let things go in order to make room for the “needle moving” actions.

  10. says

    I just won an auction on auction.com the website works great and is well organised it is after, once you win that it become a scam. I called after winning they told me that they would send the contract and that I will have to send a deposit of 5%… 14K on my side. Then few hours later no contract, I called every hour of my afternoon as I took a day off for that. Everytime it takes a long time to reach an agent and they say that I have to wait and call back in 1 hour. End of the day still no news, then I google this sentence bid pending confirmation auction.com
    Ohhh misery when I started to read the complaints about auction.com I just started the process and already I am seeing what others are going trough. Will keep you posted guys but I am already off $2500 and nothing to show, I wonder once I send the 14K If I will be able to get them back now… good luck to all but on my side that my first and last use of auction.com I’ll spend my money another way.

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