“To Do” lists are created as helpful reminders of what needs to be done, the stuff that is still outstanding and the activities that need our attention. They find their way on to refrigerator doors, pieces of paper that clutter our desks or on to digital and other electronic devices as “prompts” demanding our attention. I guess that they have their place as we feel somewhat satisfied when we start “ticking off” completed items on the list. One of the problems of these lists though is that they don’t necessarily represent the high-leverage activities that are necessary for us to be successful – often these lists comprise mundane activities which maybe need to be done, but which don’t really assist us in reaching our lofty goals. Doing the activities and getting them done just takes us to a place of satisfaction, but not necessarily a place of success.

In the 1970’s, Kimberly-Clark’s CEO, Darwin Smith, made extensive use of “Stop Doing” lists. His biggest “stop doing” decision was to get out of the paper business and focus all their resources on the emerging consumer business. They sold their paper mills and removed Kimberly-Clark from all paper industry trade associations. A typical approach to budgeting by many companies is to decide how much to apportion to each activity and how to manage costs. Smith took a different approach – he used budgeting as a discipline to decide which focus areas should be fully funded and which should not be funded at all. In other words, the budget process is not about making decisions regarding how much money an activity gets, but about determining if the activity contributes to the achievement of the core business of the company or not – if yes, then strengthen it; if not, then eliminate the activity entirely.

Other “stop doing” decisions made by Darwin Smith included the following:

  • Withdrew from playing the forecast game with Wall Street as he felt that this focused people too much on the short term
  • He eliminated all titles within the organisation (unless legally required) to break down the “layers” in the company and stop class distinction and empire building
  • Managers needed to be able to justify why they required at least 15 people reporting to them to be able to accomplish their respective roles, otherwise they had zero people reporting in to them

The above was certainly quite radical for the 1970’s, but for the period 1972 – 1987, Kimberly-Clark outperformed the general stock market by 3.42 times. Managing to focus on what they could do best and eliminating activities which didn’t fundamentally contribute to these core processes helped to leverage them into a top position in their business sector.

For businesses and individuals, the exercise of a disciplined “stop doing” list is essential to eliminate activities that don’t add much value in terms of reaching lofty objectives. Where your focus lies, that’s where your energy will go. If your focus is on the mundane – activities which are cute “nice-to-haves”, but which don’t drive the business engine – then you dilute the energy applied to really growing the company. All energy should be appropriately focused to achieve worthwhile results.

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