I am a great believer in lists. I write them all the time – things to do, places’ to go, trips to plan…but my all-time favorite list is a list of things NOT to do.
Once upon a time, I was on the executive committee of a professional organization. We conducted most of our business by email and phone, but met in person a couple times a year. As much as we tried to concentrate on the business at hand, there were a few issues that seemed to come up at every meeting. These were mainly philosophical issues – whether something was within our mission, or if we should address a particular issue.
Over and over we would discuss the same question, and the group in the room would come to a decision as to whether a particular activity was within our scope or not, and how we were going to move forward. Then, a few months later, a slightly different group would meet, the issue would come up again, and after a lengthy discussion they would come to a different decision. Usually this was the result of a slightly different combination of people present at the meeting, and not due to any change in material facts or technical parameters.
One year, the committee chair created a list of these topics. He started the meeting by reading “The List of Things We Will Not Discuss”. Everyone laughed, but at that meeting we did not discuss any of those issues, instead, accepting the decision of the previous group and moving forward from there. That meeting was one of the most productive we held in a long time. From then on, it became a tradition to start each meeting by listing “The Things We Will Not Discuss”, to remind ourselves not to re-visit the decisions of previous boards, but instead focus on implementing those decisions and moving forward.
I’ve always thought that was a brilliant solution to a problem that occurs in any number of places. The group made a decision, and future incarnations of the group were not allowed to go back and change that decision (unless there were related factual changes). Because a decision to go one way or the other was necessary to move forward, this simple step saved countless hours of re-hashing the same discussion that produced no useful action.
This same idea can also work for you in your professional lives. Once you’ve made a decision to do something (which is really a decision NOT to do something else), accept that decision, move forward, and focus your energy on what you chose to do. Write down your new goal, the steps you are going to take to achieve it, as well as the associated things on which you are NOT going to spend any more time. Often, we waste a lot of mental energy looking backwards, wondering if we made the right decision, agonizing over what might have been or if we should change our decision. In reality, it may take months or years before you understand the full ramifications of a major decision, and you will probably never know what would have happened if you had taken a different path.
So, try writing down your own list of “Decisions I Will Not Revisit”, or “Things About Which I Will Not Think”, or even “Things I will NOT Do”. The physical act of writing them down, not to mention having to form specific words from vague ideas, is a tremendous first step towards embracing your decision, moving forward, and letting go of the other possibilities.
Letting go of the things you can’t change, and directing your energy towards the places where you can, will make a huge difference in what you can accomplish, and where you can go from here.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.