Four Things to Stop Doing at Work

“Ill habits gather by unseen degrees/As brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas.” — John Dryden, English poet (Absalom and Achitophel, 1681)

Have you updated your NOT-to-do list lately?

Most of us are pretty good about compiling daily to-do lists to guide our workflow, and there’s no denying that those lists are vital for maximizing productivity. However, in many ways, a list of things you refuse to do is just as important.

A not-to-do list doesn’t have to be fancy. You simply start by writing down the time-stealing behaviors that you prefer not to take part in; then you review and revise your list periodically, to make sure you don’t accidentally slip into habits that damage your productivity and keep you at work too long.

Obviously, not-to-do lists will vary from person to person, based on what’s applicable to a particular workplace and what each individual considers impractical or illogical for them to take part in. But there are certain activities that everyone is wise to avoid, and in this article, I’ll discuss four.

Stop Gossiping
Some workplace socializing is necessary, because it helps you connect with your fellow co-workers, lets you enjoy work a little more, and can enhance your productivity in the long run. However, chatting with your buddies should stop short of discussing other people behind their backs.

Airing someone’s personal business for entertainment reasons is never going to help you accomplish anything, and spreading negativity or criticism is downright hurtful. Give it up; work isn’t a soap opera, nor should it be. If your company doesn’t have a no-gossip policy, create your own and stick to it.

Stop Complaining
We all have things in our lives we’re unhappy about, but complaining about them accomplishes very little; as with gossiping, all it does is spread negativity, and who needs more of that? In particular, you should avoid complaining about the amount of money you make, and how dissatisfied you may be with your job or co-workers.

Instead of moaning about life, readjust your attitude. If you’re disgruntled about things that you can’t change, learn to accept them and move on. If you find yourself complaining about things that you can change, then by all means, try to. In either case, do your best to remove the reasons for your complaints.

Letting yourself suffer just so you can complain about how the world has wronged you doesn’t just waste your time, it wastes everyone else’s. And besides—do other people beside your friends really need to know about your personal problems? If you’re looking for attention, there are more constructive ways to get it.

Stop Trying to Be a Machine
As much as some of us might like to think otherwise, we’re not machines. No matter how spectacular you are, you can only grind along at maximum focus for so long before you get tired and mistakes start creeping into your work…and then your productivity drops like a rock. While you shouldn’t take breaks too often, you do need to pull back occasionally so you can recharge and revitalize your creativity. You always do your best work when you’re well-rested.

Meal breaks are also important. You need to eat something every six hours or so, if only to keep your blood sugar levels high enough to avoid becoming fuzzyheaded. So don’t skip lunch, and don’t just scarf down a sandwich at your desk, either: get away for a few minutes, since by then you’ll probably need the change of pace and scenery to help you stay sharp.

Finally, don’t skip your macro-breaks, either. You need to take your weekends, holidays, and vacations as often as possible, so you can be rested and ready when work-time rolls around again.

Stop Multitasking
Multitasking is all the rage nowadays, but I happen to think that it’s the scourge of the modern office. The human brain can handle just a few things at a time, because we’ve only got so much “cognitive currency” to spend. Your mind’s trying to process all kinds of external stimuli already, so when you consciously try to do too many things at once, you literally spread yourself thin. Add in all the distractions that you have to deal with, from the sound of the rain on the windows to the photocopier chugging away across the hall to your chatty co-workers, and your efficiency begins to fall off sharply.

The worst thing about multitasking, I think, is that it fools you into thinking you’re getting a lot more done. But you’re not: you’re dividing your attention too finely. If you go too far, you’ll end up like one of those computers that assigns every single task a tiny, equal time-slice, and then takes forever to get any one task done. In computer parlance this is called “thrashing,” and I’ve seen it many times in human beings as well. If you really want to produce, focus tightly on one task at a time, and get it off your plate before moving on to the next task on your list.

Going Cold Turkey
The four items I’ve listed here are just a few of the egregious workplace habits that can rob you of productivity if you let them. These habits are sneaky: either their negative effects are easy to miss, or they fool you into thinking that they’re helping you be more productive. If you keep them up, though, you’re not going to get ahead; you’ll just end up slipping farther behind.

So for your productivity’s sake, I recommend that you sit down and seriously ask yourself if you’re guilty of any of these bad habits. If you are, then go cold turkey on each one. It may be hard, but you’ll be more productive in the long run—and that’s what really matters.



  1. I love this list of NOT-to-dos! Thanks for the reminder to stay on track at work, and focus on things that make work better, not worse.