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The “not-to-do list”: A personalized list of tasks and habits you should never do

The not to do list
Blaz Kos
7 minute read

A not-to-do list is a handy tool to help you stay more focused on the important things in your life and career. 

Simply put, it’s a list of tasks you don’t do, no matter what. You delete them, delegate them, outsource them, or simply say no when they try to find their way on your to-do list.

A very well thought out not-to-do list should help you maintain better focus and only perform tasks that create the greatest value; as well as to be more realistic that you are focused on the most important tasks at least 80 % of the time.

Why do you need the not-to-do list?

Your to-do list can quickly become overloaded, especially if you have a problem saying no or delegating and outsourcing tasks. 

This can also happen if you are poor at task management and can’t distinguish very well between urgent/important, low-/ high-impact tasks. 

As well as this, some people are very prone to distractions and bad habits, so their to-do list is always full of tasks that are never completed. 

The general idea of a not-to-do list is not having to struggle with self-discipline. It should help you to eliminate low-value tasks and bad habits from your life, so that you don’t have to weigh the pros and cons, be in a dilemma of whether or not you should make an exception, feel guilty for saying no, and so on. 

You simply say no, because you aren’t allowed to do things that are on your not-do-to list.

Which tasks should be on your not-to-to list?

The things on your not-to-do list are usually all the things that you know and feel deep down you shouldn’t be spending time on, but somehow are unable to stop doing. A not-to-do list can help you systematically take care of those kinds of tasks once and for all.

The following tasks and things should be on your not-to-do list:

  1. Your weak spots for the things you want to say no to but somehow can’t
  2. Everything that’s considered a distraction from staying productive
  3. All the tasks that somehow regularly find you, but that you can delete, delegate, or outsource
  4. Other people’s responsibilities
  5. Tasks that have a low impact on your value production (for example, small projects that are always in the way of the bigger ones)
  6. All the tasks that emotionally drain you
  7. The bad habits you want to eliminate
  8. Stuff that simply doesn’t need to be done
  9. Things that are out of your control

And of course, everything else that you want to systematically eliminate to make room for more important tasks, or even just to have more free time.

How to prepare your own not-to-do list?

Preparing your own not-to-do list is easy. Here are the steps for how to do it:

Step 1: Take time to make the list

First, you need to take the time to make the list. It’s definitely worth taking 30 to 60 minutes now to save hours and hours in your everyday life later on.

Step 2: Analyze your tasks from the previous months

The second step is retrospection. You have to analyze your tasks from the previous months, especially the recurring ones. 

Open your calendar, to-do list or time-tracking software and look for patterns. You should do the same with the different requests you get from people in your personal and business life.

Step 3: Identify the tasks that should be on your not-to-do list

Dedicate a few minutes to every recurring task. First, define how big of an impact the task has on your future. 

  • How much added value are you really creating by performing the task? 
  • Can you delete, delegate or outsource certain tasks in order to do something else with more value?

Finally, ask yourself how you’re feeling when you’re performing the task. 

  • Do you feel any negative emotions? 
  • Do you usually procrastinate when performing the task? 
  • Do you feel guilt or anger after saying yes etc.?

Identify low-level tasks, tasks you can delegate, and distractions and time wasters that take up more space in your calendar than they should. 

Be honest with yourself about what should be on your not-to-do list. Especially try to identify tasks that help you procrastinate, as well as the ones you have problems saying no to. Find the recurring ones and put them on your not-to-do list.

Step 4: Learn how to say no

Start saying no to yourself and other people. That is of course the hardest part. You should also regularly review your not-to-do list (at least every quarter) to add new things to the list or take something off if your life situation changes.

You can also use the not-to-do list concept at the beginning of a new working day, when you take the time for your 15-minute morning meeting with yourself (or your team) to plan out your tasks. 

Instead of only asking yourself which tasks you’ll perform on a certain day, make a list of tasks you certainly won’t do that day, also. It will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders, and you’ll be able to focus on the most important tasks and keep your decision muscle strong for other important choices.

Prepare templates for saying no to stay faithful to your not-to-do list

For the tasks on your not-to-do list that you really struggle to say no to, you can use templates to politely decline or delegate and outsource tasks. It saves you time and there’s less emotional pressure compared to writing a new mail every time. 

Templates are, of course, most useful for e-mail replies, but you can also use pre-prepared replies when people are asking you to do something that is a distraction from your true goals.

Almost all e-mail providers have the option of templates and canned responses. If your e-mail provider doesn’t offer such an option, you can use many plugins and extensions. You should come up with something polite for refusals over e-mail and in person, so that people don’t feel offended. 

Nevertheless, the main idea is that when somebody asks you to do something you don’t want to do, and there isn’t even a second of doubt as to whether or not your should do it, you can just reply with your standard answer.

"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. Innovation is saying no to 1.000 things." - Steve Jobs

Stop giving energy to the things you don’t want in your life!

Don’t confuse the not-to-do list with the anti-to-do-list

The not-to-do list is a list of tasks you simply don’t do, no matter what. It’s a list of activities and tasks that you shouldn’t perform because they have low value, drain your energy, or are distraction from your true goals. 

The anti-to-do list is, on the other hand, a list of tasks which you have already completed. It’s basically a column marked DONE on your Kanban Board.

The idea of an anti-to-do list is to have an overview of how much you have already done, to motivate you to do even more; or to draw a line under things when you have done enough for the day. With the anti-to-do list, you assess the progress for that day. 

The main goal of an anti-to-do list is that, at the end of the day, you feel proud of yourself for how much you have done (assuming you had a productive day), instead of focusing on how much is left on your to-do list.

What leads to success? Focus, focus, focus. Let the not-to-do list help you with that.

An example of a not-to-do list

Here is an example how a not-to-do list should look like. Make sure you keep the list at around 10 – 20 items, so it won’t be too cluttered and thus hard to pay regard to:

  1. No dealing with haters or spending time with zombies and emotional vampires
  2. No crossing my margin and no overloading
  3. No checking my e-mail first and the last thing every day
  4. No e-mail open when working
  5. No replying to every e-mail or IM
  6. No meetings (in person or by phone) without a clear agenda and deadline
  7. No small talk (in person, by phone or IM)
  8. No reading news
  9. No social networks (except for the promotion of your blog)
  10. No gossiping about other people
  11. No going to bed late (after midnight)
  12. No heavy food after 7pm

How about you? What should be on your not-to-do list? Take a piece of paper and a pen and start creating your own, then post it on your wall and make sure you stay as faithful to it as possible.

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