Is your to-do list making you nuts? Start a to-don’t list instead — with inspiration from author Adam Grant

Mar 7, 2019 /

The TED speaker and podcast host shares 4 items from his to-don’t list — stuff he’s shed from his life to make him a happier and more effective human. Read it and learn.

To-do lists are the human equivalent of a hamster wheel. While they drive productivity and keep us on track, they just never seem to stop. Even as we cross items off, our lists just keep repopulating with more to-dos.

Here’s an idea, little hamster: Take a moment to think of a few things you could cross off your list — forever. Shed the responsibilities, habits and hobbies that use up your time in ways you don’t love. Call it your “to-don’t” list.

Adam Grant has a to-do list a mile or two long; he’s a professor at the Wharton School of Business and the bestselling author of books like Originals and Option B (which he cowrote with Sheryl Sandberg). He also hosts the TED podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant, which is about the science of making work not suck. And he and his wife have three young kids. So we asked him: What are the things you’ve stopped doing, to make room for what you love?

Here are four items on Grant’s to-don’t list, along with one new to-do.

1. Helping everyone who asks

Grant has made being a giver an important part of his career and research. But after releasing the 2013 book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, he was deluged with requests for assistance from strangers. “Note to self,” he says, “don’t tell the New York Times that you enjoy helping people randomly. Oops! And don’t have them make that the centerpiece of the cover story on your work.”

At first, Grant did what he’s always done. He took a lot of calls and meetings and had many long email exchanges. Eventually, though, he realized he didn’t have time to answer them all, and people’s queries were straying from his areas of expertise.

Grant came up with a list of the ways that he can make a “unique contribution.” Now, when he gets a request, it needs to be on the list. If it isn’t, he declines with a “Sorry, but this is not in my wheelhouse.” One example of a unique contribution: directing people — who are usually looking for sources for their books, articles or presentations — to relevant work or psychology studies.

He says, “I spend so many hours reading esoteric journal articles, and it just makes my day when I think of an obscure study that actually fulfills someone’s request.” For Grant, that is the most fun way to assist a stranger. “It’s satisfying when there’s a thing you know more about than almost anyone, and somebody needs that exact thing,” he says. “There’s also a Sherlock Holmes aspect to it — can I be faster than Google? Am I a more targeted search engine than Google on this particular topic?”

Other unique contributions he likes to make: giving advice on writing and/or launching a nonfiction book; recommending books and articles to read in the realms of leadership, human behavior, and psychology and work; directing people to speakers in his fields who can talk about a specific topic; and providing feedback on how to communicate ideas in a more engaging way.

2. Mindlessly engaging with screens

Grant avoids getting on his phone or computer unless he has a specific plan for what he’s going to do with them. This is a longstanding item on his to-don’t list that stretches back to high school when he decided he wouldn’t turn on the TV unless he knew what he would watch. Now he does the same thing with social media. While he posts daily on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, he logs in just to post. One device danger zone for him is the middle of the night, when he sometimes wakes up with the temptation to check email or social media. This used to happen a few times a month until he resolved to stop succumbing.

3. Putting work ahead of family time

Besides Grant’s professorial responsibilities at Wharton — he teaches three sections of the MBA core curriculum, plus an undergrad elective — his schedule is his own. But, he admits, “I have a very difficult time disengaging from a task until it’s done. One of the things I’ve been frustrated by and regretted are days when I’m in the middle of something and our kids get home and I keep working.” He tries to reserve 3–7pm on weekdays as a solid block of family time (he and his wife are raising a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old). After they go to sleep, he’ll go online to answer emails and tie up loose ends from the day. Grant has also been trying to avoid working on weekends, but he’s had less success doing this.

4. Playing online Scrabble

Grant loves board games; he finds them the perfect combination of bonding time, intellectual stimulation, and friendly competition. Growing up, his family played a lot of Scrabble and he was often the winner. Then, when he was in college, his sister — who is six-and-a-half years younger than him — started to play competitively and became a nationally ranked Scrabble player. While Grant was proud, he did not enjoy losing to her. He says, “I was like, I need to beat her, so I downloaded an online Scrabble game to practice and got completely sucked in. I’d finish writing a paper and tell myself, ‘I’ll just play three games.’ And if I didn’t get the bingo I was looking for in the third game, I’d go for another — and pretty soon 3 hours have gone by and I’m still playing.” (A bingo in Scrabble is a play that uses all seven of a player’s tiles.)

He deleted the app. And downloaded it again. This continued a few more times, but it’s no longer on his phone. Well, there’s one exception. Every year on his sister’s birthday — “no matter what else is going on in our lives,” he says — they play online Scrabble. When he was interviewed for this post, it was the morning after their annual tradition (Grant won one game out of nine). He was facing his annual tradition: Deciding to delete the app again. He says, “I really love playing, but I also don’t feel like I have the time in the day to play multiple games.”

What’s one thing that Grant has added to his busy life? Listening to podcasts, a fitting activity for this podcast host. He relishes the chance, he says, “to engage with new ideas and stories without having to look at a screen.” He listens at bedtime, while shaving, taking out the garbage, driving, even at the dentist. His favorite shows are “Revisionist History” (hosted by author Malcolm Gladwell) and NPR’s “Invisibilia.”

In Season 2, WorkLife with Adam Grant takes you inside the minds of successful people in non-traditional occupations — including Norwegian Olympic skiers, US Olympic marathon runners, and the Pixar team who created The Incredibles — to discover the secrets to a better work life. Whether it’s learning to love your rivals, harnessing the power of frustration, or finding brand new ways to network, one thing’s for sure: You will never see your job the same way again. Listen to WorkLife on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform.

Watch his TED@IBM talk here: