Doing Better at Doing Good

Why not start the year by minimizing your to-do list?

December 22, 2012 

As you ponder your resolutions for the new year, take a few minutes to consider this advice from Nick Petrie, a faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership:

“We need to treat our mindsets like we do other possessions and have an occasional clean out,” Petrie wrote in a recent column for “Every five years we need to ask ourselves, ‘What beliefs and ideas have I accumulated over the last five years that are no longer working for me?’ If you want to grow and change and innovate faster – do this clearing of the mental cobwebs more often.”

Before we start adding to our mammoth to-do lists, Petrie suggests that we actually subtract from them. The implications for our New Year’s resolutions are refreshing. Instead of focusing as we traditionally do on the new things we are going to do, we’re better served by giving serious thought to what we should stop doing.

That list will of course be highly personal for each of us. But, just to get those mental juices flowing, we have a few suggestions for where to start.

Stop feeding your ambition: There’s a great temptation as we focus on doing better at doing good to confuse activity with results. We take on so many things and spread ourselves so thin that we can’t do anything well. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his first stint as a CEO, he did the opposite and slashed the sprawling roster of products Apple was developing down to just a handful. It freed up time and imagination to focus on new ideas and technologies. We know the rest of that story.

Closer to home, a few years ago, United Way of Central Carolinas in Charlotte found itselfwith dozens of programs, an unengaged board of directors and chronic funding problems. The solution: narrowing its programmatic focus down to just a few core areas and reducing its board from nearly 70 members to about 20. The result: a significant fundraising rebound and greater impact in the community. Ask yourself: What should my three or four key areas of focus be?

Stop seeking balance: Among the greatest myths in American culture is the holy grail of work-life balance. We all want it. But how many people do you know who actually possess it for more than a day or two? Dividing our lives into two, big, constantly conflicting spheres only leads to frustration and disappointment.

We can try instead to integrate our work and personal lives by exploring our personality, our preferred working style and our values – and realizing that there’s not an objective standard for what success looks like. Rather than seeking balance, we can come to appreciate the ebb and flow between our work and personal lives that provides greater satisfaction. The Center for Creative Leadership has a new tool, the Work-Life Indicator (found on that might prove helpful for the journey.

Stop, literally: A life of perpetual doing, even when we intend to do good, is not sustainable. At some point, we need to make space for reflection on what we’ve done and what we could do better. Otherwise, we race through our days checking things off lists only to find, as poet T.S. Eliot wrote, that “we had the experience but missed the meaning.”

Fortunately, North Carolina abounds with retreat destinations that offer gorgeous settings in which to clear our heads. In Mebane, there’s The Stone House and its commitment to nurturing social action. About an hour from Greensboro sits the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center with its emphasis on contemplative living. An hour northeast of Charlotte is the Sacred Grove Retreat Center. Most of us can’t spend a week at these places, but even a few hours here and there can make a big difference.

There’s still eight days to figure out what to subtract from your life. And with any luck, a year from now you’ll be happily making a list of all the things you didn’t do in 2013.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward and a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service