Wednesday, June 18, 2008

7 Ways to Reduce Stress With a To-Don’t List

"I'd love to do it, but I can't fit another thing into my schedule." How many times have you heard that—including out of your own mouth?

And mostly this oft-repeated phrase is a true statement: Surveys show that most Americans feel starved for time to do the things that matter to them. All around the world, "crazy busy" is a code phrase for doing what it takes to be successful.

But in addition to possibly bringing success, a packed schedule brings stress. Under such conditions, making a to-do list, instead of being a tool to help us achieve more, becomes yet another way to beat ourselves up, because we're too busy to get to the things that we want to add to the list.

If all of this describes your situation a little too well, I'd like to suggest you make another list before you start in on your to-do list: a "to-don't" list.

Where a to-do list is expansive, inclusive and encompassing, a to-don't list is contractive, narrowing and boundary-defining. At the heart of the to-don't list is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

Simply put, the 80/20 rule tells us that 80 percent of our success comes from 20 percent of our actions. Making a to-do list is about discovering the actions that comprise that magic 20 percent and focusing on them. The to-don't list is about naming the other 80 percent of our actions for what they are - not crucial in a cosmic sense - and finding ways to resolve our entanglements with them.

A couple of caveats are in order here:

* A to-don't list is not an excuse to remove things you don't like to do, but need to get done, from your plan of action.
* It is also not an excuse to ignore family or friends to make room for behavior that is unhealthy or compulsive.
* And it is not a way to avoid necessary confrontations or conflict (i.e. friction which eventually results in a better situation).

A to-don't list is simply a list of actions which you are currently doing which are not high priorities at this time, and which you are willing to forego doing, at least for the immediate future.

When you make a to-do list, for new every item you add, be prepared to move at least one other item (and more likely two or three) to the to-don't list.

Some potential to-don'ts can be massaged, with the time, manner or frequency of the item manipulated in some way to free up time or energy.
However, it's truly surprising how many things turn out to be optional, and can drop off our to-do list without incident.

If you're able to develop and implement a "to-don't" list, you can reap the following seven benefits.

1. You can take advantage of a new opportunity when it arises.

No more worrying about whether this is the "right time" to pursue an attractive new option. Adding to your to-don'ts can help make now the right time.

2. You can cope more easily with sudden challenges and changing circumstances.

This is a less sunny restatement of benefit number 1, but it is perhaps even more important. How many people do you know have changed their lives dramatically—including how they spend their time—when faced with a crisis? Knowing that you can clarify your wants and needs if you're buffeted by a difficult situation may make it easier to imagine surviving it.

3. You can become clear on what your priorities are.

Many people juggle actions that reflect their true priorities along with a host of social niceties, imagined favors and other actions that have merit, but just do not count as "essential" in their heart of hearts. The to-don't list helps you make distinctions between actions that flow from deeply held values and actions taken primarily to please others, protect your reputation, etc.

4. You can do more with less.

Evangelists of the 80/20 principle promote this point as one of the greatest advantages to their mindset. With energy and time freed up to concentrate on the to-dos, focus provides the leverage to turn what doesn't seem like "enough" into sufficient, even abundant resources.

5. You can say 'no' more confidently.

Few people like to be told no, and fewer still seem to enjoy saying it to someone else. By drafting a to-don't list, you can be more confident that the items you are saying no to truly can wait, or can be done by someone else other than you.

6. You can generate options to resolve conflicts more easily.

You may be able to generate counter-suggestions to a request after drafting the to-don't list, and create a mutually satisfying result, even if you can't provide what was originally expected.

7. Your to-do list will become more useful.

And that's the intent of the to-don't list—to support a to-do list that leads to meaningful, satisfying actions.

If you only have three things on your to-do list, but they're the three right things for you to do today, and you do them, it's far more productive than if you have a long list that never gets accomplished. And that's what a to-don't list can help you do: create a to-do list that's about to-doing, not to-shoulding or to-wishing.

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