Strategy – A More Effective To Do List

This is an unusual thing for me to do, submit someone else’s article. But a colleague of mine, Herb Rubenstein, President of the Sustainable Business Group wrote this and I felt it should be shared. So here it is:

The “to do” list is a staple of executives, housewives, college students, unemployed and employed adults, teenagers, and even elementary school students whose parents have drilled staying “on task” into their heads. Thanks to a webinar by Marshall Goldsmith, this article provides key insights into a potentially very effective complement to the “to do” list. This is the “to stop” list. Dr. Marshall said in the webinar that he was told by Peter Drucker, just before Peter died, that Peter regretted that he had not taught this time management tool more often or more successfully during his life.

The basic premise of the “to stop” list is that people today are very busy. They multi-task. They fail to be able to delegate tasks to others because they don’t even have the time to get organized enough to hand off some of their items on their to do lists in an effective manner to others. People want to do different things in their lives, but don’t have time to do them. We work at the speed of “blur,” but still don’t get things done we want to get done.

The goal of the time management tool, the “to stop” list, is simple. The goal is to help people begin to eliminate activities in an organized, written, manner that are taking their time, but are not producing sufficient value or enjoyment to merit filling up our days and nights. The theory behind the “to stop” list is simple. It is based on the premise that an excellent way to make room in our busy schedules, or “make time” as some people like to say, for new or different activities, or activities we never seem to get to, is to eliminate some of the activities that have been regularly taking our time up to this point that are just not producing much value for us.

The Approach

Creating a “to stop” list is actually very easy. It can start as simply as putting certain foods on your “to stop” list that you no longer find useful to eat. (Not everything on your “to stop” list has to be a great time saver). You can start by putting a few of your biggest time wasters on your “to stop” list.

In some ways the “to stop” list works just like a “to do” list, except in “reverse.” Most people do not always complete everything on their to do list. Similarly, you, in all likelihood, will not stop everything completely on your “to stop” list. At least not immediately. But merely cutting back on some of your key time wasters, is actually a great start. One of the keys to the success of the “to stop” list is that some people respond better when someone, or they themselves, tell themselves to stop something rather than being told, or telling themselves, to do something.

The “to stop” list can be created and carried out or implemented at the individual level, the family level, or at the organizational level. The “to stop” list can successfully change a culture in an organization where discipline is lacking and “anything goes.” It can create an opportunity for self-examination at whatever level it is implemented and you can share this management tool easily with others and assist them in being more effective with their time.

Specific Examples of Typical “To Stop” Items

In addition to putting things on your “to stop list” things you do that are time wasters or not the most effective use of your time, you can actually put certain people on your “to stop” list if spending time with them is not useful or enjoyable. Of course, if someone is on your “to stop” list, I urge you to be polite to them, and not tell them you just put them on your “to stop” list. However, putting someone on your “to stop” list sends a clear signal to you that it is probably wise that you spend less time with this person.

Do you watch more TV than you think you should? Do you participate in too many staff meetings that are longer than they should be and that do not contribute to the effectiveness of the organization in which you work? Do you waste time responding to emails that should be ignored or should be answered quickly? These are easy items to add to your “to stop” list. Putting these types of items in some form on your “to stop” list can lead to shorter and more effective staff meetings, less TV watching, less time wasted on emails, and less time wasted on similar activities as well.

Items on your “to stop” list may be very specific or include general categories of behavior. For example, you might put specific activities like stopping so much surfing or shopping on the internet on your “to stop list.” Or, you might put categories or items that are very broad like “stop noise in my life” or “stop nonproductive arguments” on your “to stop” list.

Another purpose of the “to stop” list is to have us look at our behavior that has become routine, including our habits, and re-evaluate their usefulness compared to the time they cost us. Organizations could do well by surveying all of their employees and asking one simple question, “What are your ten biggest time wasters on the job?” Those responses should produce a healthy set of items to go on people’s “to stop” list, as well as help form the basis for a collective “to stop” list at the organizational level.

Recently, one small business owner began to write a “to stop” list. She put on her “to stop” list to stop doing trivial and low value activities that she was doing day in and day out at her business. These activities, like preparing labels and name tags for events, required none of her special talents and could be easily and effectively done by a person who was paid a wage far lower than the business owner was receiving from the company. She realized that even a high school or college intern, at virtually no cost to the company, could perform these activities just as effectively as she could.

By writing down these types of activities on her “to stop” list, she, without realizing it, was actually creating a “job description” for a new person to come into her business to do this lower value work. When she realized she had just created a perfectly good job description for a part-time employee or intern, she posted this detailed job description on several websites under the title, Administrative Assistant. Within one week, she found the perfect person for the job and hired this administrative assistant who freed up ten to fifteen hours of her time each week.

This made the business owner more productive. It allowed the business owner to undertake high-value activities, which allowed her to promote and expand her business in ways that only she could do. This not only freed her up to do much higher-value and profitable work, it led to a significant increase in her work satisfaction. Now she has more time to work “on the business,” rather than spending so much of her time working “in the business.” And I believe Chris Hoffman might say, “She improved her Hoop” by hiring this person. (See the book, The Hoop and the Tree, by Chris Hoffman).


You can add or subtract items to the “to stop” on a regular or periodic basis. It is a good practice to review the list at least monthly to see how you are doing in stopping or reducing the amount of time you spend on activities that are not producing value or enjoyment for you or your organization. Each month you can update the list.

There will always be things you have to do because there is no one else to do them. While these activities may seem trivial, they may well be important for you or your organization to get done and to get done well. Also, in some cases, an activity you regularly do might not be that important to you, but is very important to other people who depend on you, so it should not go on your “to stop” list. But, certainly, some activities you do on a regular, or even periodic basis, just don’t have much benefit for you, your organization, or anyone else. They are certainly are not worth your time, but we do them out of habit or without carefully weighing their costs and benefits. These are precisely the types of activity that you should put on your “to stop” list.

The “to stop” list at the individual level may lead to your finding ways to delegate or automate tasks, or become much more efficient in completing them, or just eliminate them entirely from what you do. Overall, a good “to stop” list has the dual benefits of making you and your organization(s) both more efficient and more effective.

Finally, preparing both a to do list on a weekly basis and a “top stop” list, done once and updated possibly once a month, is an excellent combination of time management tools that you can begin to deploy right away. It may just contribute to your own individual wellness and sustainability.