Your To-Don’t List: The Other Key to Greater Productivity

Demotivation is the underappreciated secret to success.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

“To make progress, add this to your to-do list!”
“Hey, you know what you should also do?”
“Have a can-do attitude!”

We hear a lot of that, which is odd given that we’re all overwhelmed, our to-do lists bloated to bursting. 

We should be more positive about negativity. We should add more subtraction to our planning. We should start saying stop more often. We should put more to-don’ting on your to-do list. We should demotivate as much as we motivate and here’s why.

There are only so many hours in the day and therefore only three ways to squeeze new items on to our to-do lists: 

  1. Do other things faster.
  2. Multi-task.
  3. Eliminate other tasks. 

Eliminating other tasks is probably the most important. Can-do attitudes can only take us so far before we’re up against our time constraints. Something’s got to give. Things on our to-do list have to be moved to our to-don’t list. To add, subtract. To try to do more of some things, try to do less of some other things. 

Practical life has a lot in common with triage, how emergency and rescue workers decide what to attend to, and what to ignore when they’re overwhelmed by possible priorities. Triage divides potential to-do list items into three categories and demotivates responses to two of the categories.

For example, when rescue workers get to the scene of a multiple-person accident, they prioritize by triage, so they can ignore two tempting to-do list categories. 

  1. Ignore those who can’t be saved (as good as dead). 
  2. Ignore those who don’t need to be saved immediately (the walking wounded). 
  3. Attend to those who can only be saved with immediate attention

In our everyday lives, we need to be able to demotivate by means of triage too. Don’t waste time on hopeless tasks that will never pan out (the good-as-dead). Don’t waste time on making happen what will happen anyway (the walking wounded). Giving up and letting go efficiently is key to focusing on the points of leverage in your life. To prioritize, economize your effort. To focus, eliminate.

This is not just good advice. The idea that what doesn’t happen is key to what does is fundamental to the biggest insights in science.

Darwin’s key insight was that life evolves by a process of elimination. Natural selection isn’t a creator of the fit, adding new adaptations to organisms. It’s an eliminator, pruning the bush of life. The survivors that are presented are a product of what’s prevented from surviving. 

The insight behind the concept of bits and bytes is also a process of elimination. A bit of information is the elimination of possibilities. In a coin flip that comes up heads, the news that it's heads is not something added but the elimination of tails—a tails that didn’t happen. Information is a reduction in possibilities, a bit is a reduction from two possibilities to one actuality.

Self-organization theory has been a big advance in our understanding of how order emerges, for example in the orderly currents of a whirlpool. It’s not the addition of order but the elimination of chaos. As the pioneer in this research, H. Ross Ashby put it: “A self-organizing system spontaneously reduces … the number of its potential states … Observe what might have happened but did not.”

For 25 years now, I’ve eliminated many other tasks so I could focus on research that applies elimination logic to explaining the origins of life, not as something added to chemistry but a way that life emerges as the spontaneous reduction in the likeliness of degeneration. Life, from this perspective, is death prevention. You’re alive as long as death remains on your to-don’t list of activities. We don’t have a good term for it, which is itself telling. I’ve had to coin the awkward term “unlikelification” for this process of elimination. To this day and in your everyday life, you are trying to keep the many ways you could die unlikely. 

Last week I coined the term “improbablism” for this approach to understanding and living life. To make it more probable that you’ll get to your to-do list items, make alternative items more improbable. 

 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., MPP
Source: Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., MPP

I used to be a business consultant. I worked with a large company's vice-president who printed buttons for his staff to wear. They simply had the word "zombie" with a red-line through it. He ran a campaign to eliminate the zombie tasks from his company's bureaucracy. Zombie tasks were like the living dead, sucking up resources unproductively. 

I've had zombie tasks in my life too. In retrospect, I accumulated a lot of them when I was young, impressionable, and disoriented, easily drawn into tasks and obligations as they presented themselves, complete with rewards and punishments, regardless of whether they were actually useful tasks for me to take on. Over the decades, I've pruned them off my to-do list. Sometimes it took significant effort to resist the temptation to keep at them. Sometimes I dropped them effortlessly. Either way, it was worth it. Triage has been good for me, good for my ability to focus on priorities.

To-don’ts also apply to how to be realistic and efficient about morality. A lot of people are motivated to claim that they subscribe to all the moral principles. They think people should do this and that and the other thing. The collect moral principles like there’s unlimited tomorrows, like they can add as many as sound good and that people with the most moral to-do’s on their to-do list are the most moral. 

They’re actually the most hypocritical, like people who pretend they’re doing hundreds of things when they’re barely getting to any of them. 

Moral triage is crucial to living a moral life. When it comes to moral badges of honor, don’t just try to collect them all for some big moral prize. Get picky. Get realistic. Prioritize. Only hypocritical prudes pretend they can live by all the moral to-dos at once. Demotivate your moral to-dos that don’t need or won’t benefit from your attention. 

Here’s a four-minute video on unlikelification.