Are You a To-Do List Bottom-Feeder?

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For a while now, I’ve had a section on my whiteboard wall called “Minor Commitments,” tasks, requests, small, one-time things I’d committed to doing.

What harm could these do? Turns out, a lot.

Because when I added up the time and energy it took to honor any 10 minor commitments, it equaled the time and energy needed to honor one big, fat honking commitment…THAT I DIDN’T MAKE because I’d already committed to the itty-bitty ones.

And, thing is, the return on the big, honking one I passed up would’ve been exponentially larger than the total return on all 10 minor commitments.

So, before you end up saying, “oh, it’s cool, I can knock that out in like no time, sure I’ll do it,” step back and ask yourself what seriously impactful, bigger thing you won’t be able to do if you commit to this one little sucker…and then another…and another..and another…

Put another way, try to get a beat on which minor commitments really matter, and which are more likely to be bottom-feeder obligations that keep you glued to the pond-scum, while brighter, cleaner water flows briskly just a few feet above…

If you only had the time to swim up there…


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42 responses

42 responses to “Are You a To-Do List Bottom-Feeder?”

  1. I like your approach Jonathan,

    Small commitments may seem like a noble thing to do, but if they have a bad effect on your productivity, they’re worth leaving behind. If you value productivity more than compliments that is πŸ˜‰

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger, Grant Griffiths, Becky McCray, TwittyBean, Santi Chacon and others. Santi Chacon said: Is Your Schedule Packed With Bottom-Feeder Bait?: For a while now, I’ve had a section on my whiteboard wall called… […]

  3. To dissent *just* a bit, I think you have to factor relationships and prospective relationships into your “little things.” Sometimes being of service in a small way can come back in a big way in meaningful relationships. So, I would add that you should always consider the source when vetting the small things. Focusing just on the task might rob you of an opportunity to foster or build a key relationship.

  4. Tara says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I know what you mean about those little taks – it’s those phone calls you get from a client “could you just…..”. So it may only be 10 minutes but a few more of those and thats something you could have filled with something more productive. I have just been reading Dave Allen’s Getting things Done – which prompted me to buy the “Things” app for my ipad. I have tried to put everything there to clear my head a bit. It also lets you see how those little tasks mount up.


  5. JScarantino says:

    Great point Jonathan. I’ve also come across this several times where I had to re-evaluate some of these “little things” and whether or not they were of any long-term value. I don’t know how many times I just threw everything out and started over because of burnout. Also, excellent comment by Stephen Solomon. Ideally, we should have a more efficient way to evaluate commitments, big and small. I’ve found that sometimes even the one’s we think are big really aren’t all that big and the reverse is true for the small tasks. In other words, throw away conventional wisdom and keep an open mind.

  6. Calming says:

    I think it depends on the tasks and their purpose. I do agree, there are the little things that get in the way that sometimes will make you loose your focus. I know personally for me, its leaving my email tab open and everytime I get an email I check it and see if it is something I can respond to right away. I have started to leave it off until I am done. But I do agree with Stephen Solomon in regards to building relationships but to add to his point, make sure the relationship is balanced and in both of your best interest on a professional level.

  7. Sandi says:

    For me it’s about remembering that every time I say yes to something (little or otherwise) I have to say no to something else. It’s a slippery slope that I manage constantly – mostly because I like saying yes and contributing. My warning signal is that I start to feel cranky and resentful! That’s usually when I sit down with the schedule or in front of the whiteboard like you did Jonathan, and get straight about the commitments.

  8. Oh… you got me again Jonathan! I’ve done what you describe so often… and just recently began to eliminate so many of them AND having one specific day scheduled for handling the ones I must do – which frees me and my energy and creativity for the other ones the rest of the week!

  9. LOL Love your concept and I agree. Currently is schedule blocks of time for tasks and have a priority list.

    IF I have extra time I might take something small on but usually I get to work and just move through the water at a steady pace.

    Social media and email fall into those distraction task categories so I tackle those in chunks of time and all at once.

  10. […] Is Your Schedule Packed With Bottom-Feeder Bait?Β – Question the choices you make on your commitments. [Jonathan […]

  11. I know exactly what you’re talking about here Jonathan.

    For me, I often get caught in this trap and feel frustrated by it. BUT, I’ve also learned (sometimes the hard way) that doing little things (for others) that don’t seem a huge priority to me right NOW…. can often pay dividends in the future.

    So, I appreciate the point of this post: I too need to focus on doing more of MY big stuff…. but I also believe balancing a few little “helping others without expecting any reward” can be a great long-term success strategy. Which kinda doesn’t make sense… and kinda does! πŸ˜›

    hehehe anyway, cool post. Got me thinking about my to-do list, for sure.

  12. Jonathan, so often we end up taking up minor commitments just so as to be “nice”.

    I used to be just like that – ultra nice. But I am learning to focus on the more important things, things which matter to me and not the minor things which others want me to partake in.

    No more Mr Nice Guy:-)

  13. Elle B says:

    You’re like the oracle tapping me on the shoulder, Jonathan. I’m exhausted today from honoring a minor commitment yesterday that took more time and energy than I’d thought (all day, instead of “just a few hours”).

    Like you pointed out, it’s not the one-offs or even two-offs that cause problems, it’s when they multiply like bunnies (or grow like catfish). Learning how to balance big impact commitments and small service ones is hard, but ultimately more gratifying for us and those we want to help.

  14. Rhonda Page says:

    HiJonathan,.My challenge is that I have trouble saying no to people when I know that I can be of help to them. My level of commitment and energy is the same. – know it is my choice, but – believe that we need to do this for each other in this world. I could use help with this.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Look at it this way, you can’t be of help to anyone if you reach a point of overwhelm where you can no longer be of help to…YOU! It’s great to give, but you’ve also got to take, refuel and recharge

    • Roland Wijnen says:

      My experience is that many times we keep each other busy with all of these little tasks that we make up. Asking ‘Why should I do this?’ can help to address the task right away. You could answer this question in a couple of ways:

      – I won’t do it because it’s something that is on my NOT-To-Do list (e.g. join hour-long meetings).
      – It’s relevant to me, but not right now. I’ll put it on my SOMEDAY list.
      – It’s relevant to me, I’ll schedule some time to do it.

      What I find is that a lot of tasks get out of your way, so you can make progress on that big commitment Jonathan is talking about. And those little tasks that indeed are relevant to you can usually be integrated into the big commitment.

  15. ceil says:

    Oh, I so relate. It takes so loooong to do anything. One thing leads to another and problems pop up. I feel like I take one step foward and two back. So flustrating.

  16. Bryan Lubic says:

    Impact and value….

    Always find it helpful to ask: “What’s the impact of this action? What’s the value of this result?”

    Won’t always have an answer, and they don’t always have to be quantifiable.

    Just the act of asking those two questions for any given task/project/action can be enough to surface the answer.

    Thanks for more thought provocation, Jonathon!


  17. Irene Ross says:

    As always, Jonathan, this is spot-on! In fact, I had just this kind of conversation with another entrepreneur yesterday. This person, though, felt that if she didn’t just say yes, she’d be greedy and not-so-nice. I gave her some ideas as to how she could add value to the situation–but was insistant that if none of them could come to fruitition, this would only be a waste of her valuable time and resources–as you call it (so eloquently!) “bait for bottom feeders!

    Irene Ross, CHHC, AADP

  18. Thank you for highlighting this point – it has actually been up for me this week. I just finished reading Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, so one other layer I would offer is to always bring both the potential small and large commitments back to how they might support our BIG WHY. Then eliminating any of those that are not fully aligned with the BIG WHY.

    One other approach that has worked for me when someone has a request of me that is not fully aligned with my BIG WHY is to provide them with a counter option that will still support them yet also honor the boundaries around my finite time and energy.

  19. Kari Wolfe says:

    Oh, I so understand this. I just need to learn to say “no” and to mean it when I say it.

  20. Jonathan,

    I was just discussing an idea with James Chartrand and she dropped some wisdom on me – she suggested I write down everything the new idea would entail and how much time each task would take on a daily or weekly basis. So I did that, and added the new idea tasks/time to my *current* tasks/time and it was a real eye opener.

    I saw some BIG time wasters/bottom-feeder bait that I’m now working towards eliminating. I also saw that my new idea would take more time and effort than I’d realized and so now, I’m going to charge accordingly. Good thing I did the exercise James suggested because I was ready to price my service 90% lower than I am now.

    Thanks for writing this! It made me feel like I’m on the right path. πŸ˜€


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      That’s kinda why I like the project management gann chart thing. When you see all the tasks laid out for every project in a visual way, it can be pretty eye-opening

      • I’ll check that out. James said she creates flowcharts of projects – I might try that using MindNode. I love a nice visual aid. πŸ˜€

        Thanks for a great post, Jonathan.


  21. Christopher says:

    I’ve been told my people in my field of healthcare that the most important thing to learn is how to say “no.” Great thoughts!

  22. I keep a quote posted by my desk that says “the ability to say know, means having a greater yes burning inside”. I often look at it before I take on something new, albeit small….

  23. ‘Minor’ and ‘major’ refer to overall value, not time, right? The old ‘getting things done’ mantra is “don’t just prioritise what’s on your task list, make sure what’s on your task list are priorities”

    Big or small, long or short, if it’s not important, say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Also, perceived ease of completion (which often has no relevance to actual ease, lol)

  24. Yep. So glad I read this today! This post and the comments were a happy read for me – nice to see we are all feeling the same way.

  25. Christy says:

    There is a lot in there to think about Jonathan. What’s the motivation to make the minor commitment begin with? Did we think we had time, are we trying to be nice, did we evaulate and see a longer term benefit, or was it something else?

    Then how did we prioritize those minor commitments with the larger ones? Do we have an established benchmark or minimum number of minor commitments that are acceptable in any given timeframe?

    Then it’s how do we say “no” when we’ve reached maximum capacity? Can we deal with someone else’s frustration or anger at us because we said “no”?

    So you can see, your post made me ask more questions because I see overlapping themes of relationships, emotions, productivity, and processes. My mind is buzzing on what is supposed to be a relaxing Saturday afternoon. πŸ™‚

  26. Jonathan,

    Knowing when to say no is key, but so is the ability to evaluate the time, energy and resources required. I often underestimate all three.
    Scheduling helps me – but it’s far from perfect. As much as I like to have lots of things going on – I do much better when I can be pretty single minded and focused.

    Hard to balance – I like your suggestion to think about what has to come off the list if something else is added – great to put things in proper perspective.

  27. reese says:

    Thanks Jonathan. This is something I’ve felt in the back of my head for a while, and there’s some guilt and issues surrounding it.

    When you’re primarily in a client-relationship based business, like I am (and then trying to SHIFT away from that somewhat) the tiny things on the list are a viscous cycle. Like Stephan astutely mentioned, unfortunately many of those little things for me are relationship builders. and saying no to them feels sometimes like I’m turning a client away or not appreciating them. (And yes, I’ve already pared down the client list considerably to folks I really love to work with.)

    Yet, my own good stuff, my really big stuff, isn’t getting done. Because of the ‘bottom feeder’ tasks.

    It’s a pickle, I tell you.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Reese,

      Comes spiraling back to the “big rocks” theory. If you’re always pouring the sand and pebbles into the jar first, the big rocks’ll never fit even though there’s plenty of room for both. What might happen if you committed to bringing one single component of your own good stuff to life, plugged that into your schedule, then built everything else around that? You might end up with fewer clients while you were working on it, or maybe not. But, at least you’d be conforming your energy to what mattered most not to other people who want a piece of your time, but to you. I know it’s not that simple…or is it?

      • reese says:

        mmm. there are many reasons you make me think. this is one of them. πŸ™‚

        Great theory. And, for what it’s worth, I’m getting there. πŸ™‚ (Life is too short to not leave a mark of my own upon the world)

  28. Dom says:

    Another great post Jonathan. As the old saying goes – “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

    Saying yes to commitments that are not relevant to your major goals is also a form of procrastination, as it enables you to postpone the more challenging but crucial tasks.

    One handy phrase to say no politely – “sorry I can’t chat longer/attend this function/help you with xyz, but I’ve got a crucial deadline to meet.”

  29. matty t says:

    i like the idea of “minor commitments” as a priority management principle, however like you have clearly explained, i to have also uncovered sources of major distraction by doing this. i guess many minor commitments should be classed as major due to this.

  30. Liron Art says:

    I once read another blogger who said “If it’s not a definite yes then it’s a no”. I wish I remembered her name. I keep reminding myself of that because often I need to.

  31. […] organizing planners, or trying out a new productivity tool. Tiny, small, unsuspecting things that add up to ginormous wastes of time that only distract from our […]

  32. It is a scary thought to spread yourself to thin… you are exactly right, time is precious and you need to be wise with it…

    GOING OFF TOPIC— but your post made me think of these thoughts….

    just like your work life balance… It is important to get your priorities straight… especially if you have young children… They’ll be grown before you know it… don’t blink…

    Have you ever just committed to something and then something way better came along? What did you do, did you drop your prior commitment or honor the 1st one?

    It’s just like when you were younger and one of your friends was going to the bar – u said u go… but then another frien came along and said they were going to a concert of your favorite band… do you ditch your 1st offer you committed to? Are you a true friend or waiting for something better to come along..

    Rich LoPresti

  33. Jonathan,

    Wow, you just described a problem I’ve encountered too often. I work at avoiding it, but occasionally I discover that I’ve committed to that string of little tasks.

    The solution is to say “no” to those tasks when they first present themselves, especially the ones that are deceptively easy. When I do that, I’m always happier because I have more time and clearer thinking to finish the big tasks.