Perhaps you’ve heard of a “not-to-do list.” CEOs and productivity experts recommend the idea highly as a huge productivity booster that will help you free up time and headspace for all the things that really matter.
Sounds great. But what should go on it? Best-selling author Tim Ferriss has some ideas. In a recent short podcast, he offered nine suggestions of bad work habits that many entrepreneurs and others desperately need to eliminate (chances are you are doing at least a couple of these—I’m personally massively guilty of two and five), so there is almost certainly something here that can boost your output.
Don’t overwhelm yourself, Ferriss says. Just tackle one or two at a time, eliminating counterproductive habits step by step, and eventually you’ll reclaim impressive amounts of time and energy.
1. Do Not Answer Calls from Unrecognized Numbers
Ferriss gives a couple of rationales for this one. First, the interruption will throw your concentration, costing you far more in time and brain power than just the conversation itself, and second, if it’s important, you’ll find yourself in a poor negotiating position, scrambling to formulate your thoughts when the caller is already well prepared. Instead, use Google Voice to check your messages or a service like PhoneTag to have them sent to you as email.
2. Do Not Email First Thing in the Morning or Last Thing at Night
“The former scrambles your priorities and all your plans for the day and the latter just gives you insomnia,” says Ferriss, who insists “email can wait until 10am” or after you check off at least one substantive to-do list item.
3. Do Not Agree to Meetings or Calls With No Clear Agenda or End Time
“If the desired outcome is defined clearly… and there’s an agenda listing topics—questions to cover—no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes,” claims Ferriss, so “request them in advance so you can ‘best prepare and make good use of our time together.’”
4. Do Not Let People Ramble
Sounds harsh, but it’s necessary, Ferriss believes. “Small talk takes up big time,” he says, so when people start to tell you about their weekends, cut them off politely with something like “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?”
But be aware, not everyone agrees with this one (and certainly not in every situation), and you may want to pay particularly close attention to norms around chit chat when traveling internationally.
5. Do Not Check Email Constantly
Batch it and check it only periodically at set times (Ferriss goes for twice a day). Your inbox is analogous to a cocaine pellet dispenser, says Ferriss. Don’t be an addict. Tools like strategic use of the auto responder and Boomerang can help.
6. Do Not Over-Communicate With Low Profit, High Maintenance Customers
“Do an 80-20 analysis of your customer base in two ways,” Ferriss advises. “Which 20% are producing 80% or more of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80% or more of my time? Then put the loudest and least productive on auto-pilot, citing a change of company policy.”
What should those “new policies” look like? Ferriss suggests emailing problem clients with things like guidance on the number of permissible calls and expected response times. If that sounds like it might annoy your loudmouth customers, his response is, essentially, who cares? Point them to other providers if they don’t like the new rules. “Sometimes you really have to fire your customers.”
7. Do Not Work More to Fix Being Too Busy
The cure for being overwhelmed isn’t working more, it’s sitting down and prioritizing your tasks, Ferriss believes. So don’t make the mistake of working frantically if you’re swamped. Instead, sit down and decide what actually needs doing urgently. If that means apologizing for a slightly late return call or paying a small late fee, so be it, as long as you manage to get the important things done.
“If you don’t have time, the truth is you don’t have priorities, so think harder, don’t work harder,” he says.
8. Do Not Carry a Digital Leash 24/7
At least one day a week, leave your smartphone somewhere where you can’t get easy access to it. If you’re gasping, you’re probably the type of person that most needs to kick this particular habit.
9. Do Not Expect Work to Fill a Void That Non-Work Relationships and Activities Should
“Work is not all of life,” says Ferriss. This seems obvious, but the sad truth is that while nearly everyone would agree to this in principle, it’s easy to let things slide to a point where your actions and your stated values don’t match up. Defend the time you have scheduled for loved ones and cool activities with the same ferocity you apply to getting to an important meeting for your business.