Not-to-do list

There is an apocryphal [1] story that Warren Buffett once asked someone to list his top 25 goals in order. Buffett then told him that he should avoid items 6 through 25 at all costs. The idea is that worthy but low-priority goals distract from high-priority goals.

Paul Graham wrote something similar about fake work. Blatantly non-productive activity doesn’t dissipate your productive energy as unimportant work does.

I have a not-to-do list, though it’s not as rigorous as the “avoid at all costs” list that Buffett is said to have recommended. These are not hard constraints, but more like what optimization theory calls soft constraints, more like stiff springs than brick walls.

One of the things on my not-to-do list is work with students. They don’t have money, and they often want you to do their work for them, e.g. to write the statistical chapter of their dissertation. It’s easier to avoid ethical dilemmas and unpaid invoices by simply turning down such work. I haven’t made exceptions to this one.

My softest constraint is to avoid small projects, unless they’re interesting, likely to lead to larger projects, or wrap up quickly. I’ve made exceptions to this rule, some of which I regret. My definition of “small” has generally increased over time.

I like the variety of working on lots of small projects, but it becomes overwhelming to have too many open projects at the same time. Also, transaction costs and mental overhead are proportionally larger for small projects.

Most of my not-to-do items are not as firm as my prohibition against working with students but more firm than my prohibition against small projects. These are mostly things I have pursued far past the point of diminishing return. I would pick them back up if I had a reason, but I’ve decided not to invest any more time in them just-in-case.

Sometimes things move off my not-to-do list. For example, Perl was on my not-to-do list for a long time. There are many reasons not to use Perl, and I agree with all of them in context. But nothing beats Perl for small text-munging scripts for personal use.

I’m not advocating my personal not-to-do list, only the idea of having a not-to-do list. And I’d recommend seeing it like a storage facility rather than a landfill: some things may stay there a while then come out again.

I’m also not advocating evaluating everything in terms of profit. I do lots of things that don’t make money, but when I am making money, I want to make money. I might take on a small project pro bono, for example, that I wouldn’t take on for work. I heard someone say “Work for full rate or for free, but not for cheap” and I think that’s good advice.


[1] Some sources say this story may be apocryphal. But “apocryphal” means of doubtful origin, so it’s redundant to say something may be apocryphal. Apocryphal does not mean “false.” I’d say a story might be false, but I wouldn’t say it might be apocryphal.

5 thoughts on “Not-to-do list

  1. I have a similar-but-different “Lessons Learned List” (because I like alliteration). These are things I’ve tried and often enjoyed, but which ultimately yielded significantly more negatives than positives. They are also my temptations, occasional gap-fillers, “why nots”, and most importantly, black hole time-sucks.

    It’s my version of not repeating the mistakes of my own past. I also call it my “anti-resume” for work I’m qualified to perform but really shouldn’t.

    The need is real: I tend to live in the moment and discount my own prior negative experience (“I’ll do it better this time!”), if I bother to recall them at all. As a minor example, I finally decided to weed out my large yet carefully curated book collection to prepare for a moderate home remodel, primarily to discard books I haven’t re-read and never will. Each ISBN was scanned into a library app. I was surprised to find I had over a dozen books for which I had multiple copies. Four copies, in one case. And it wasn’t even one of my favorites. Wound up discarding about 95% of my collection, far more than initially anticipated. Lesson learned: All books go into a single bookcase, and any new book means an existing book must be discarded. Now to see if I can apply that to my closet…

  2. I agree with your point about “work I’m qualified to perform but really shouldn’t.” I cast a wide net when I was trying to get started, but now I’m being more selective.

    A business guru would say you should focus. But you have to be moderately successful before you can afford to focus. Business advice is mostly about how to go from 1 to 2, not from 0 to 1 to use Peter Theil’s expression.

    With regard to books, I culled about 40% of my books last year. Maybe it was the year before; things run together. :) I’ve regretted a couple choices and repurchased them. If you never regret anything you’ve discarded you probably haven’t discarded enough.

  3. That’s interesting. In my 30’s I worked somewhere where I had a lot of freedom, and made it a rule for myself that there was no interesting idea that I would not pursue. Almost every idea I had was at least tangentially related to my job. Sometimes unexpectedly. I had no partner, lived frugally, was intensely interested in my job, and could work for 48 hours at a stretch. I was well rewarded. It was without doubt the best time of my life.

    Things changed. I’m almost 70 now, no longer immortal, or indeed much use. But I don’t regret a minute of it.

  4. According to the OED apocryphal can mean “false” as well as “doubtful origin”. The first definition it gives is : ” A. adj. Of doubtful authenticity; spurious, fictitious, false; fabulous, mythical.” It also gives the following example usage which you are sure not to like! “1868 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest II. App. 569 The tale has a somewhat apocryphal sound.”

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