It’s time to write your Not-To-Do list

Career Advice
JC Cornell

By JC Cornell
December 15, 2021

November 30, 2023

0 min read

To-do lists can be a big distraction. You find yourself doing all the small tasks “in-between” everything else so that your day is clear to focus on those big projects. But that is never what ends up happening.

You end up with 20 half-done smaller tasks, with mostly finished large projects. None of these shows your best work and leave you feeling unaccomplished.

A not-to-do list isn’t just about getting rid of the tasks you don’t want to do, but getting rid of the ones that prevent you from greater productivity. Once you have a not-to list it will save you time in your day-to-day.

You will know what tasks should instantly be delegated, allowing you to be more efficient while giving you back valuable time. In business, there are many people on a team who can help with your list, and those smaller tasks can be a great opportunity for more junior co-workers.

What should be on a not-to-do list?

This list should be comprised of those weak spots where you should say no but instead do the work yourself.  

All those tasks that distract and take away from your being productive or have a low impact on your productivity (emails, coffee runs, reading news reports, small project stopping you from focusing on bigger ones, etc.) should be on this list. 

Tasks you can delegate or delete, are emotionally draining, or are out of your control should also be added.  Bad habits you want to eliminate can go on there, too. Really, all that stuff that simply does not need to be done.

Items that might appear on your list

  1. Do not eat in front of the TV – you are not allowing yourself to eat slowly and appreciate your meal
  2. Do not take your phone to the gym to answer emails – disconnect to fully concentrate on exercising
  3. Do not bring electronics into the bedroom – they are distracting as you try fall asleep
  4. Do not get less than 8 hours of sleep a night – you need it whether or not you think you do
  5. Do not spend excessive amounts of time on social media – it sucks you in and gives you a false sense of accomplishment
  6. Do not watch/listen to mass media news all day – it is incredibly sad, and scary, and creates fear-mongering
  7. Do not try for perfection – aim for excellence
  8. Do not try to create more than one good new habit at a time – it can be addictive to be part of positive change, but doing too much at once can lead to your willpower being spread too thin

Whether you want to achieve, creating your not-to-do list will help you focus on what matters most to you. Knowing what not to do can be as powerful as knowing what to do.

How to write a not-to-do list

If you don’t already have a detailed agenda/calendar of where you spend your time, take the next few weeks to document everything you do, every day.

This is really important to have before you get started.

  1. Go somewhere quiet where you can think and work undisturbed for at least an hour.
  2. Write down all your activities from the last month including reoccurring tasks, day to day duties, and those things you are not sure fit into your current job description. Look at your next month’s appointments, and write down all the ones that are questionable to your current role. Go through your to-do lost and do the same thing.
  3. Analyse the activities that are time wasters, those you feel angry at yourself for saying yes to, and define if they greatly impact your overall performance. Ask yourself, how much value are these actually providing?
  4. Identify all the low-level tasks you can delegate, appointments you should cancel, and meetings you shouldn’t attend. Be honest with yourself about what shouldn’t be on that list.
  5. Now take all those and put them on your not-to-do list. If it is helpful, make a note of the action you will take to move them off your to-do and a timeline to have it done by.

What next?

Now is the hardest part - making these changes. Shove those tasks off your plate. Don’t allow them back on. This is not the time to justify your choices; this is the time to put your decisions into action.

Go over your list every morning as a reminder of what you can say yes to and what you should keep saying no to.

Review your list regularly, every quarter at least. Add new items or take them off as situations change. To-do lists always keep growing; having this review will help chop that list down and keep it focused to goals and task that really matter.

Other uses

Other people use not-to-do lists in different ways. Warren Buffet uses his to focus on 5 goals, and delegates the smaller distracting ones to people who can help him accomplish them.

This is not laziness but rather laser focus. He achieves more by doing less. Warren explains his process quite eloquently here.

Tim Ferris, a regarded entrepreneur and motivational speaker, looks at his not-to-do list from a business and personal perspective. His 9 “do-nots” help him avoid those habits he is constantly striving to eliminate.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and founder of Square, focuses his on healthy patterns and living a better life.

You already have a to-do list, now it’s time to create a NOT-to-do list. Simply because what you don’t do determines what you can do. Less is more.

Share the knowledge

Latest Jobs

S&F Airswift newsletter form graphic

Fast-track your STEM career