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Conventional wisdom tells us that making a specific, realistic to-do list is an effective way to organize our thoughts and put us on the right track during our workday. Matthew E. May believes the opposite is true; he recommends that instead of adding things to a to-do list, we should be making a “stop doing” list, subtracting the tasks that are not the best use of our time.

May, a former business consultant for Toyota, has a new book, The Laws of Subtraction, which advocates following six rules to subtract the unnecessary and focus on personal effectiveness:

The world is more overwhelming than ever before. Our work is deeper and more demanding than ever. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. Our economy is more uncertain than ever. Our resources are scarcer than ever..

Welcome to the age of excess everything. Success in this new age looks different and demands a new skill: Subtraction.

Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly . . . or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.

May got the idea of the “stop doing” list from an essay from Good to Great author Jim Collins. He emphasizes, “We all try to cram far too much into our waking time.”

So how can you make your own list to exercise subtraction and maximize personal effectiveness during your workday? Here are a few tips:

1. Keep track of your time.
Be honest about how you actually spend your working hours, including the 25 minutes tracking down a morning espresso or the hour after lunch answering non-urgent emails. Keep a list of what you do and how much time each task takes over the next few days, and resist the temptation to fudge the unflattering numbers (this is just for you, after all).

2. Slim down.
Look at your time audit closely and identify patterns that emerge. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What results or goals are most important for my job? How much time do I spend working toward these objectives?
  • What tasks or activities are the biggest distractions or time-wasters for me? What are my personal time “black holes” (for example, email, social media, socializing, micromanaging)?
  • What can I reasonably subtract from my daily to-do list to increase my personal effectiveness in the tasks that are most important? How can I delegate or reorganize?
  • What are daily reminders or tips I can use to break old habits and develop this “stop doing” list?

3. Put your list into action.

Start incorporating small changes gradually into your work schedule. Too much change all at once might be overwhelming and cause you to abandon them altogether. Begin with delegating the weekly agenda to an employee or limiting yourself to blocks of time where you can check your email each day.

How have you incorporated the laws of subtraction into your workday?

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