A list of don’ts

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By Tony Samson

IT SEEMS easier to make a list of don’ts than to-do’s. The negative list is shorter and easier to follow. Laws are usually a list of unacceptable behavior, a list of no-noes’. Customs forms for instance specify only goods that are prohibited entry to a country like illegal drugs, fresh fruits, weapons, or currencies above a certain amount. A declaration of non-possession of these banned items is part of the usual immigration form. Anything not found in the negative list is allowable — did they list pets?

Diets are simplified as a negative list of types of food (or quantities) to avoid. The list of prohibitions is shorter and easier to remember than an enumeration of what to eat to stay healthy. Avoiding sugar, carbs, and certain fruits provide a simple guide for the dieter and demonstrates the elegance of the negative list. Such prohibitions vary depending on the program, like the keto diet. Of course, the admonition of other health gurus to this one is simple too — don’t do it.

We are driven by a “to-do” list for the week like groceries and laundry, or milestone events in a planned career — must have own toilet in the office after three years. A to-do list is used as a performance-rating system that tracks how many checks we’ve ticked in the list. New Year’s resolutions are best expressed as “don’ts” — no more smoking, avoid name-dropping, don’t talk about yourself every time, get rid of tight sweaters.

Management guru Peter Drucker bewailed the almost exclusive focus of management on “priorities,” the critical success factors that need to be accomplished to achieve the company’s mission posted on the elevator. Too little attention is devoted to “posteriorities” which are things that should be put at the very end of a list, so as not to be done at all. Posteriorities are distractions that siphon away time and resources from truly important activities.

One of the talents of Apple’s Steve Jobs as CEO, based on the biography of Walter Isaacson, was knowing which projects or products to kill at the proposal stage. (He instead concentrated in the iPhone.) Doing everything, no matter how interesting, is sure to waste the company’s resources and attention span.

How can Stephen King write two novels a month and rack up 89 of them so far? He has a disciplined regimen of writing six days a week, through holidays and storms, at a rate of ten pages a day. Imagine all the invitations, speaking engagements, and rock concerts he turns down. His simple to-do list implies many don’ts.

Even the ten commandments with their different versions and numbering have eight of them expressed as don’ts. (Thou shalt not kill.) The only two positive ones refer to honoring parents and keeping the sabbath day holy.

A goal is defined not just by what it is but also by what it should not be.

The tyranny of the in-box dictates that items there need to be attended to right away. Can one not simply ignore certain items in the pending file? It is too tempting to equate efficiency to a clean desk, defining this as the absence of unattended items. Maybe it is just as desirable to let certain items pile up and gather dust. This sends a message to a proponent that a request has been ignored, lost in corporate limbo, neither approved, disapproved, nor passed along for further study. It is the equivalent of a requested message response — y no rep? Silence (or lack of a reply) is a powerful message too.

It is easy to mistake a determination to disregard certain things as simple laziness. Maybe it is. Few set out with a negative list. It is seldom necessary to specify what repels us, relying instead on instincts to do the job.

Maybe one list will suffice. A list allows us to focus on priorities if these are very few. The most important thing about lists, negative or otherwise, is the need constantly review them. Those previously averse to uncooked leaves and bits of fruits and nuts in a bowl sprinkled with vinaigrette can develop a taste for salads often in the list of most diet plans.

Can life be simpler without lists of any sort? Yes, but it will also be full of surprises, not all of them pleasant.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda