Three Powerful Lists to Keep You on Track

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 5: Eliminatingsubscribe and buy here

Many people get into productivity with the notion that they could beat that feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted if only they could get more done. They begin reading about productivity not to do less, but to do more. They overlook the possibilities of eliminating – at least at the beginning – and instead try to take on more, much more.

For many people, that first step actually feels quite successful, but over time the feeling goes away. Regardless of how “productive” they manage to become, that new level of productivity becomes the new norm and they again begin to feel overwhelmed, exhausted… inadequate. Now they have even _more_ stuff they’re are telling themselves they need to do and even less of the free time they craved initially.

Many people fail to identify that not all tasks have the same importance. Instead of eliminating those tasks that are less useful, we add more instead. Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and inadequate we begin looking for “cheap wins”, adding more of those tasks to the list whilst leaving the important tasks untouched. We begin paying ever more attention to those cheap wins, telling ourselves we are being “productive” and all the time ignoring the real priorities; so the spiral continues.

I’ve been in that situation and at the time I didn’t know how to escape it. Then I discovered The Three Lists.

The Three Lists

The Three Lists is something that I stumbled upon with a little bit of luck, but since I implemented them I’ve been able to eliminate those hollow cheap wins and accomplish more real personal victories. The lists don’t contain tasks or projects; They contain guidelines: stuff that I need to remind myself and things to avoid in order to be really effective. Instead of fixating on the short-term feeling of success, The Three Lists allow me to identify those tasks that should be avoided and experience real success.

The Three Lists are: “The Do not Do List”, “The Do not Need List” and “The Non-Negotiable List”. When I began using them, I didn’t see how related they were. It wasn’t until I began recommending them to others that I saw how strong they are when used together. I have mentioned at other times my “Do Not Do list” and “Do not Need List”; but let me show you how they work together. I’ll begin by describing what they are, and what they contain. From there I will attempt to show you how they work together as a powerful tool.

In the moments that you are tired, overwhelmed and exhausted you will take a cheap win, even if deep down you know it’s an empty victory.

The “Do Not Do” List

I began using this list many years ago. It was a way for me to begin eliminating from my system those little tasks that were just cheap wins that distracted me from the more important tasks. We all have them; they are simple tasks like “wash the ar” or “do email first thing in the morning.” Over the years I have come to rely on this list to help me keep those cheap wins -or those tasks that have a negative effect on my productivity-, off my list. For example, a long time ago I stopped doing email first thing in the morning. Even though I embedded this habit a long time ago, I need to be reminded of it constantly or I’ll fall back into the trap of seeking a cheap win in order to feel busy and productive. In the moments that you are tired, overwhelmed and exhausted you will take a cheap win, even if deep down you know it’s an empty victory.

The “Do Not Need” List

Like “The Do not Do List”, I discovered this list years ago. I’m the sort of person who can spend hours in the name of research looking for things that I am sure “I need”, that are going to make me more “productive/happy”, you know, fill in the blank for the appropriate moment…

So I go into this massive search/research mode that wastes hours of my time; I know that I don’t need a 27“ Thunderbolt Apple Monitor – my main Machine is an iPad Mini and I have a MacBook that I mostly use to stream my iTunes to an Apple TV in my living room. Regardless of that, once in a while I come across one of these beautiful screens and begin thinking about how it will be a great addition. I don’t have a formal home office, nor a formal desk to put it, yet I’ll spend hours researching and justifying that beauty. Since I added it to my Do Not Need list (and referenced the many times I journaled arguments for not buying it) I have stopped wasting time with the idea of that monitor. This allows me to get back to the more challenging tasks that without a doubt are much more important than deciding if I should change everything in my life in order to make space and found a place for a 27” gorgeous monitor.

The issue with many items on this list is not only the time I waste researching them; It would be easy to cope with that. The issue is that these flights of fancy also create an incredible amount of distraction and lack of focus even when I’m not actively researching. Putting these items on the Do No Need List enables my brain to make peace with the fact that the decision is made.

In case it’s not clear, this really isn’t about my deep-rooted desire for a Thunderbolt monitor; It’s about our tendency to distract ourselves from the things we’re trying to avoid. The “Do Not Do List” is a reminder of those key trigger items that can be even more dangerous than focusing on cheap wins, because they consume more time but ultimately leave you with nothing.

The “Non-Negotiable” List

Finally, let’s talk about the “Non-Negotiable List”.  I discovered that there were certain things that I absolutely needed to do in order to maintain an optimum mental, physical and spiritual condition for myself. I created “The Non-Negotiable List” for this purpose. For example, I have discovered that as I get tired, exhausted and overwhelmed one of the first things I do is to stop reading. Why is this a problem? Reading is one of those things that de-stresses me. When I stop reading in response to feeling tired and exhausted, my stress levels simply go up and up.

I have also learned to respect my time to go to bed. I wake up everyday at 4:00AM, so it is important that I get to bed early. In the old days, I would have convinced myself to work all night in order to catch up. When I was in my early twenties, all it would take was a strong cup of coffee and I’d be able to have a good day. If I do that now and I somehow manage to work the next day, I will not be in anywhere near top condition and in all likelihood, I’ll crash out at some point.

Recognize How You’re Wired and Adjust Your Lists to Suit

Recently in a parent-teacher conference at school, as the teacher described my girl -and how immature she was for a five-year old- I couldn’t help but laugh. The teacher could have been describing me! My daughter is wired in the same way I am. The difference between us is that I have learnt that my productivity, my efficiency and my low level of stress are directly tied to my ability to take good care of myself and set limits. The Three Lists allow me to do exactly that.

It’s why I have I do not starve myself from my fulfilling activities as punishment for not finishing other activities on my Do Not Do list and I will not buy a low convertible or a Mazda Miata on my Do Not Need list.

I am a writer; I like to write everyday.  I used to forbid myself from writing until I’d completed other tasks; It was a form of self-punishment.  When writing went onto my Non-Negotiable list I began to understand how toxic that form of self sabotage was. I understood that I should be using my my prime time to write.

I have learnt that my productivity, my efficiency and my low level of stress are directly tied to my ability to take good care of myself and set limits.

By now you might be thinking that it may be a good idea to make one or more of these lists for your own consumption, or you might be wondering how they are tied up to the topic of Eliminating.

If you are trying to make one or more of these lists for your own consumption, I recommend you use all three of them. Their power comes as a combined tool; Although each one has its own potency, the power that the three of them bring combined will make great changes on your life.

Eliminating and the Three Lists

Are you still trying to understand how this is tied up with the topic of eliminating? Let me explain.

In the first paragraph of this article, I said that many people begin reading about productivity to do more, not less; Eliminating comes later in the process. In many cases the gains achieved from implementing a decent productivity system allows them to add even more things to their lists and routines, giving the feeling of success, of being productive. It is when they hit that old place again – even when they are now doing many more things – that they need to begin looking into eliminating. But where to start? Most productivity books don’t mention eliminating; they only talk about prioritizing.

Three Lists is where I begin. Eliminating is as much about stopping doing things as it is avoiding those future tasks that you simply should not do. It is about discovering the important things; It is about eliminating inefficient workflows from your life. This is not the same as minimalism – unless you want it to aim in that direction – but has everything to do with discovering that regardless of what you might read in many productivity texts, not all tasks are the same. Some of them you simply shouldn’t do, some of them you shouldn’t consider, some of them shouldn’t eat the hours you have on the day. The difficulty lies in figuring out which ones they are; Especially when you are wired to forget.

The items on my Three Lists currently help me to make better choices and in many cases help me to make better use to some of the hours. In a certain way, they act as filters allowing me to filter those activities that will not allow me to move forward and that are in some cases constantly holding me back. They allow me to filter tasks that the speed, the day to day and even my dumb self think it is a good idea do, even that I am aware they are simply not.

As a writer, typing speed is important for me, so I practice everyday. Also, I am kind and respectful with my own self. I was, for more years that I am willing to admit, simply rude and inconsiderate with myself. I have learned that those things – among others – are Non-Negotiable.

More than 100 pounds ago, I was constantly eating my stress and my frustrations away. Having this on my list has helped me many times to make a better decision and this is now simply something I Do Not Do.

Finally, I went to college to be a Lawyer. At some point  I developed a love for pens and watches – my old bosses all had cool pens and watches I guess. I spend many years collecting both, somehow it was ok collect them but I wasn’t really using them. I finally realized that researching the next pen or the next watch was causing a lot of wasted time as well as causing more effort than needed for a decision like which pen or watch to use. So I pledged to stop collecting pens and watches.  I simply Do Not Need them. I can use the time doing more important things.

The Three Lists are nothing more than personal guidelines. They have helped me to me eliminate those tasks and behaviors that make my day less effective; they have moved my focus away from the cheap wins and onto the significant personal victories.

If you recognize these traits in yourself, try creating your own Three Lists. The change might surprise you.