I recently got back from a month's vacation — the longest I've ever taken, and a shocking indulgence for an American. (Earlier this summer, I was still fretting about how to pull off two weeks unplugged.) The distance, though, helped me hone in on what's actually important to my professional career — and which make-work activities merely provide the illusion of progress. Inspired by HBR blogger Peter Bregman's idea of creating a "to ignore" list , here are the activities I'm going to stop cold turkey in 2012 — and perhaps you should, too.
- Responding Like a Trained Monkey. Every productivity expert in the world will tell you to check email at periodic intervals — say, every 90 minutes — rather than clicking "refresh" like a Pavlovian mutt. Of course, almost no one listens, because studies have shown email's "variable interval reinforcement schedule" is basically a slot machine for your brain. But spending a month away — and only checking email weekly — showed me how little really requires immediate response. In fact, nothing. A 90 minute wait won't kill anyone, and will allow you to accomplish something substantive during your workday.
- Mindless Traditions. I recently invited a friend to a prime networking event. "Can I play it by ear?" she asked. "This is my last weekend to get holiday cards out and I haven't mailed a single one. It is causing stress!" In the moment, not fulfilling an "obligation" (like sending holiday cards) can make you feel guilty. But if you're in search of professional advancement, is a holiday card (buried among the deluge) going to make a difference? If you want to connect, do something unusual — get in touch at a different time of year, or give your contacts a personal call, or even better, meet up face-to-face. You have to ask if your business traditions are generating the results you want.
- Reading Annoying Things. I have nearly a dozen newspaper and magazine subscriptions, the result of alluring specials ($10 for an entire year!) and the compulsion not to miss out on crucial information. But after detoxing for a month, I was able to reflect on which publications actually refreshed me — and which felt like a duty. The New Yorker , even though it's not a business publication, broadens my perspective and is a genuine pleasure to read. The pretentious tech publication with crazy layouts and too-small print? Not so much. I'm weeding out and paring down to literary essentials. What subscriptions can you get rid of?
- Work That's Not Worth It. Early in my career, I was thrilled to win a five-year, quarter-million dollar contract. That is, until the reality set in that it was a government contract, filled with ridiculous reporting mechanisms, low reimbursement rates and administrative complexities that sucked the joy and profit out of the work. When budget cuts rolled around and my contract got whacked, it turned out to be a blessing. These days, I'm eschewing any engagement, public or private, that looks like more trouble than it's worth.
- Making Things More Complicated Than They Should Be. A while back, a colleague approached me with an idea. She wanted me to be a part of a professional development event she was organizing in her city, featuring several speakers and consultants. She recommended biweekly check-in calls for the next eight months, leading up to the event. "Have you organized an event like this before?" I asked. "Can you actually get the participants? Why don't you test the demand first?" When none materialized, I realized I'd saved myself nearly half a week's work — in futile conference calls — by insisting the event had to be "real" before we invested in it. As Eric Ries points out in his new book The Lean Startup , developing the best code or building the best product in the world is meaningless if your customers don't end up wanting it. Instead, test early and often to ensure you're not wasting your time. What ideas should you test before you've gone too far?
Eliminating these five activities is likely to save me hundreds of hours next year — time I can spend expanding my business and doing things that matter. What are you going to stop doing? And how are you going to leverage all that extra time?
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). You can follow her on Twitter at @dorieclark.