In 1979, a passenger jet took off from New Zealand for a sightseeing trip to Antarctica. 257 people were on board.
The pilots didn’t know that someone had accidentally altered the flight coordinates by a mere two degrees. Consequently, the plane ended up twenty-eight miles east of where the pilots assumed it would be.
Descending below the clouds, the pilots hoped for the passengers to get a view of the gorgeous Antarctic landscapes. Instead, the plane found itself in the path of the active volcano Mount Erebus.
The snow on the volcano mixed with the clouds, deceiving the pilots into thinking they were flying above flat ground. The warning to pull up came too late.
The plane crashed into the volcano, killing everyone on board.
We are pilots of a plane called life.
This plane rarely takes a U-turn (or even a 45-degree turn) in a flash. It’s just too heavy.
Events that change people’s lives are often a result of them straying just two degrees off course for very long. Then one day, they find themselves in the path of a volcano.
They get laid off because they didn’t heed the signs that their skills were turning redundant. They end up in a financial mess because they didn’t save for rainy days. Their partners leave them after interpersonal tensions that existed for years reached the point of no return.
We all yearn for a life on autopilot, one where we can reach our destinations without much effort.
There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, a certain autopilot governs most people’s lives. It’s called a to-do list.
The good, bad, and ugly of to-do lists.
A to-do list is great to get things done.
But the coordinates fed in most of them lead people in the wrong direction because to-do lists often have tasks that others want from us. Bosses, colleagues, partners, friends… even the craving for Instagram likes dictates what we add to our lists.
With time, we get accustomed to constantly doing what others want. It keeps us busy and feels easier. But in the process, we fail to authenticate our true selves—our identity, values, and long-term goals.
Any opportunity to examine these, ironically, makes us feel anxious and take the easy way out. Like running into the welcoming arms of instant gratification.
The current lockdown is an example.
All of us had dreams we could never pursue because we couldn’t find the time. The lockdown gave us the time and resources to work on them. Yet, the subconscious habit of following to-do lists where someone (or something) else tells us what to do, remains dominant.
Netflix chooses the series we watch next. Experts tell us which webinars to attend. And we’ve started suffering from consumption fatigue.
How long can one scroll Instagram or binge-watch Netflix? How many webinars can one watch before the mind gets saturated?
This saturation has pushed many people’s nerves to the edge.
Autopilot systems have advanced rapidly over the years. Despite this, pilots and copilots sit in the cockpit of a modern-day passenger aircraft. They track the plane’s direction and make tiny adjustments when needed.
Likewise, you have to make tiny adjustments when your life veers from the path ever so slightly. To do this, you need a don’t-do list.
What is a don’t-do list?
Jim Collins, the author of the bestselling book Good to Great, was taking a course on innovation and creativity at Stanford Business School. One of his teachers called him undisciplined and unfocused.
This caught Collins by surprise. He prided himself on setting and pursuing three BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) each year.
But the teacher said, “Instead of leading a disciplined life, you lead a busy life.” Then she gave Collins an assignment.
She asked him to imagine that he had inherited $20 million but had only ten years to live. What would he do differently? More specifically, what would he “stop doing”?
Working on this exercise turned out to be a watershed moment in Collins’ life. He loved Hewlett-Packard—the company he worked at—but hated his job. So he quit his job and pursued his real passion: to become a business professor at Stanford.
If Collins hadn’t created a “stop doing” (or “don’t do”) list, millions of readers might never have enjoyed his wisdom and writings.
Collins offers a simple framework to help you build a more meaningful life.
First, ask yourself three questions:
- What am I deeply passionate about?
- What am I genetically encoded for—what activities do I feel I’m “made to do?”
- What makes economic sense—what can I make a living at?
Next, take stock of your activities. If more than half your time falls outside the above three areas, it’s time to make a don’t-do list.
“Make your life a creative work of art. A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It’s the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.”Jim Collins
Productivity is not about doing more.
It’s about doing more of what matters without sacrificing much of what we love along the way.
Tim Ferriss is right. It’s not just what you do today that determines your tomorrow. It’s also what you don’t do that determines it.
Meaningful work makes us feel good. To achieve it, we must remove the constant static of cluttered to-do lists.
Another way to make a don’t-do list, as David Brooks suggests, is:
Don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let that terrifying longing crowd everything else out.
The subject that arouses a terrifying longing is the intersection of the three questions in Jim Collins’ framework.
Much of what we do is a waste of energy. If we ignored or stopped doing it, our lives would be simpler and our results would vastly improve.
Slash the tasks on your to-do list from ten to three. Increase the items on your don’t-do list from three to thirty.
Long-term focus is the biggest differentiator between a mediocre life and a good (or a great) one. The way to build this focus is to go in the opposite direction of doing more: to cut back.
Just because you’ve lived your whole life a certain way doesn’t mean you cannot change.
The world is about to hit the reset button. You can do it too.