We’ve all got lists for what to get done.

To-do lists help organise our day and calm our mind.  Once a job’s on the list, it can stop bouncing around in our brain.

And how good is it to tick things off?

I know I’m not the only one who adds things I’ve already done so I feel like I’m getting somewhere with my To-do list.

But like any good thing, we can go overboard with lists. We create too many, and they wind up too long. They go from being a useful tool to a guilt-inducing master. It can drive us crazy.

So instead of tearing our hair out, why not make a new list? The To-don’t list.

I love an opposites approach and this one comes from one of the world’s top productivity experts.  American business writer Tom Peters says every To-do list should be cut back to just 10% of the original list. For every 20 things, Tom says we should just focus two or three. The other 90% should go into a To-don’t list to remind us what not to spend our time on at this moment.

Deciding what not to do frees us to be better at what we are doing.

There are two ways a To-don’t list can be useful:

To sideline most things we add to our list that won’t make a difference right now. The To-don’t list sorts ‘I’d love to find time to do this’ from ‘I have to get this done now‘.

To guide our daily actions so that we are more effective. One of my favourite writers is Daniel Pink who uses a To-don’t list to stop himself from derailing his creative output. Watch his video to get a better idea.

How does it help with writing? 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the things that people say we should be doing with our writing, but really they all boil down to a few To-don’ts. Here’s my list to improve writing for your audience.

DON’T be boring

Yes, there’s a place for information in our writing – we absolutely must have something of worth in everything we write. So statistics, demographics, predictions – all (potentially) have a place.

But information without emotion is boring. Plus it’s also easily scanned and quickly forgotten. Bring in the heart and show the people who benefit, whose lives are different, because of what you’re writing about.

Classic example? Back in 2012, Skype started collecting and sharing stories about the way people used their VoIP technology to connect with one other. They wanted people to use Skype to keep in touch on an everyday basis, not just for milestone occasions. Previously their strategy had been to highlight the technology and the data proving it worked. But the marketing team knew that the people who were using Skype were the real story and tuned into the human side of Skype. That ‘real people’ focus continues today, with an active blog where stories of connection come from Skype users themselves. Last February, a Valentine’s Day story put the romance into Skype.

“Skype gave us the ability to chat face-to-face while we were more than 5,600 miles away from each other,” says Justine. “I love to say Skype was the lifeline to our relationship.” (A Skype love story from the Skype blog page, Your Stories)

Don’t be irrelevant

Make sure you’re writing about what’s relevant to your audience. A comprehensive marketing survey found that 60% of content produced by brands is seen as poor, irrelevant or failing to deliver. Ouch. The Meaningful Brands study is the biggest analysis of its kind, covering 1500 brands across 33 countries and 300,000 people.

What else did they find? That 84% of people expect brand content that entertains, tells stories, provides solutions and creates experiences and events.  And they’re disappointed by more than half of what they get.  There’s the opportunity, folks – give the people what they come looking for but probably fail to get from your competitors. Stories and content that entertains, informs and creates memorable experiences.

There’s the opportunity – give the people what they come looking for but probably fail to get from your competitors. Stories and content that entertains, informs and creates memorable experiences.

A note of caution though – you have to either choose stories that are directly relevant to your business, or write them so that you’re adding value to your brand, even if the topic seems a bit random. Domain gets it. The property sales website has a Good Living section with articles covering a broad range (household cleaning to organisation and productivity tips). But they all exist within the context of living better, which fits with the business of selling homes and lifestyles.

Don’t be lazy

Write the long and lumpy first draft then edit it for mistakes in spelling and grammar, and rework or remove those parts that don’t quite make sense when you read it back. Check for the gaps – assumptions in understanding that can leave our readers confused and therefore less likely to believe that we know what we’re talking about. Then whittle it down to its sharpest, smartest version of itself.

Heard of the quote, ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter’? (attributed to any number of people including Mark Twain and Winston Churchill). It’s a reminder that if it’s worth your time to write it, then it’s worth your time to shape it into something even better.

Don’t leave people unsatisfied

Yes, this is the bit about including a call to action. But it’s more than that. If someone is interested in your business after reading your piece, it would be foolish not to help them find out more. Don’t leave people with unmet needs – give them somewhere to go, or something to do next. It’s only fair to them and your business.

And then, the most important one –

Don’t forget to write

Writing may be time-consuming, frustrating, and challenging but actually doing it is the only way we’ll get better. And, done well, it’s one of the most effective tools we have to show value.

What next?

If you want to learn more about writing better for the audience you have, or the audience you want to build, sign up for my newsletter. And check out some of the writers I follow (below). They are brilliant at bringing fresh ideas to open minds. Any suggestions on others to include? Let me know.

Todd Henry writes and speaks about productivity, creativity and leadership.

Jay Acunzo also writes and speaks about creativity in business, in a way that makes you feel you’re on a slightly crazy and totally inspiring journey with him. 

James Clear gives value – so much – in his emails and articles about how to improve habits to accomplish goals. His work is evidence-based and presented through fascinating stories and anecdotes.

If you have people you think I should follow, or books, articles, podcasts I should check out, email to let me know. It’s always great to find new ideas.