Why You Need A To-Do List For Others

“Giving back” is no more than a concept until you take specific actions. Putting them on a to-do list will help others–and yourself.

Why You Need A To-Do List For Others
[Photo: Flickr user Benson Kua]

We here at Fast Company have spilled a lot of Internet ink over the right and wrong ways to do the to-do list. But have you ever thought of keeping a to-do list not just of tasks for yourself, but stuff to do for others?

Michael Parrish DuDell, author of Shark Tank Jump Start Your Business–the official book from the eponymous TV show–keeps, among his personal task lists, an agenda of people who have asked him favors. (He uses Trello for his organizational needs.) He tries to carve out 30 to 60 minutes every day for helping others, which can mean responding to an unsolicited email from an aspiring entrepreneur or giving advice to another person in his We Work space.

Michael Parrish DuDell

DuDell first started the practice in 2012 as a way of giving back. When he was a 20-something with an acting degree and no interest in show business, he wanted to pursue a career in business and marketing. He credits his unlikely success as an entrepreneur–he’s a branding consultant who’s worked with companies including American Express, Kraft, Ogilvy, Visa, and L’Oreal–because of the assistance of his own small network. Now he wants to do the same for others. It’s karmic, really.

But, the to-do list is not a completely selfless endeavor. “There is a tremendous amount to be gained by doing that sort of work,” he says. Here’s how:

More “Aha” Moments

DuDell claims dedicating time to others on a regular basis helps him clear up creative blocks. DuDell spends a lot of his day on personal branding. “When you’re doing something that is essentially a lonely sport, it’s really easy to get stuck in this whirlwind of ‘you, you, you’ and ‘self, self, self,'” he explained. “You get stuck on this place when you’re hitting a wall.” His to-do list for others is like the shower for the rest of us: He lets his mind wander from the task at hand and it leads to aha moments for his own work.

There is some science to back up his claim. Research has found that a combination of dopamine and distraction lead to creative thoughts. Another study found that our brains reward good deeds with dopamine hits. And, as DuDell explained, talking to people about their problems provides a distraction from his own challenges.

A Better Way to Network

DuDell, like many of us, finds networking “cheesy and overly sales-y.” And he’s right. Scientists have linked forming relationships for career gains to negative visceral reactions. It literally makes us feel gross.

DuDell has a theory for how to fix that. During normal networking events, people tend to talk about their own careers, and zone out while the other person is gabbing. Everyone is selling. “It’s so counterproductive to actually building relationships,” which is actually what networking is about.

Taking a page out of Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never Eat Alone, DuDell flips networking on its head. “Instead of focusing on how can you serve me,” he said, “flip it to how can I serve you. The networking is far more meaningful and long lasting.” And then when the time comes for him to ask a favor, the person is much more receptive to helping a friend–instead of a work colleague–out.

With all of his do-godding, does DuDell ever worry about those around him taking advantage of his charity? “I’m a hard guy to take advantage of,” he said. “I might be nice, but both my parents are therapists. I’m pretty self-aware of how I’m feeling in a situation.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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