What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?

©2005 Johanna Rothman

If you’re like most of my clients, you have too much to do. Recently, an Engineering Director, Stephanie, explained all the things she “had” to do: monitor the projects, participate in the requirements sessions, draw up a yearly budget, write three performance evaluations, monitor training classes, visit customers, assist technical support and more. Some of the items on her list were clearly her responsibility, but others were not. Her not-responsibilities were preventing her from doing her necessary work. Stephanie needed a to-do list and a not-to-do list.

Here are some signs that you need to create a not-to-do list:

  • You’re always working overtime.
  • You never have time to sit and think.
  • You manage crises well, because that’s the only kind of management you ever do.
  • You’re the bottleneck for work that’s not getting done on your project.
  • Papers sit in your inbox for weeks, and you’re hopelessly behind in your email.
  • You take refuge in the technical work because you’re uncomfortable with the management work you’re supposed to do.
  • You get depressed looking at the ever-growing pile of paper on your desk.
  • Your to-do list is a write-only list; things go on but never come off.
  • You are doing more work but your manager is less satisfied with your performance.

Your not-to-do list is the list of everything that’s not part of your job to address or solve directly. Here are some suggestions for creating a not-to-do list:

Clarify your role. Try defining your job description with a one-line sentence. What does your company pay you to do? How broadly are you interpreting that? Should you make it narrower? One Director of Engineering said, “I’m responsible for the care and feeding of the engineers and the product.” He stopped allowing the salespeople and the support staff to lean on his organization, by putting training and other procedures in place.

Work at your level. Check to see that you’re working at the level appropriate for your title. Many people retain pieces of previous work out of habit after a promotion or a reorganization, rather than working at the most appropriate level If you’re now in middle management, think hard about whether you should be doing technical work. If you are doing technical work, who’s doing the strategic thinking?

Make decisions when you add value. When it’s time to make decisions, check a couple of things: are you the right person to make the decision? Are you too tired to think straight? Will you add value to this decision? If you’re the right person to make the decision, clear your head, think the problem through, and then make the decision.

Delegate or manage your paperwork. If you need administrative assistance, or filing assistance, or other paper handling assistance, ask for it. Then, deal with the rest of the paperwork. If you don’t know what to do with your humungous pile, throw the whole thing out. If someone needs something from you, they’ll be back with another piece of paper.As you decide what you should do and not do, don’t just drop things. Explain your decisions, possibly by negotiating with the people affected by your decisions. And when you make your not-to-do list practice living with it for a few weeks. See if other people are working on handling the items on your not-to-do list. If no one’s working on that list, does it matter, or will your project risks increase? If your risk increases, explain which work you’re not going to do to manage the risk.

If you’re working on issues that belong to other people, stop. Draw your boundaries, and make the rest of the people in your organization live up to their job descriptions; don’t just take on more work.

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