The Not-To-Do List: How to Achieve More by Doing Less

written by Dan Silvestre
Task Management

not-to-do list

I used to think that a to-do list was the most important list you should make to be more productive. Today, I know that’s not true. The most effective tool for productivity is the not-to-do list.

Let me explain:

Life does a good job of teaching us that to achieve more, you should do more.

And so our days become one long battle of trying to complete endless to-do lists.

But what if we’re wrong?

What if the secret to ramping up your productivity isn’t addition, but subtraction? What if you focus on minimizing the negatives instead of maximizing the positives?

Let’s be real:

We all have limited time and energy. The only way to have more time for what really matters is by cutting unnecessary busy work.

The most successful people I know have a narrow focus. They protect themselves against time-wasters and say no to almost everything.

So instead of taking on more work, you need to consider what you might stop doing. 

Because here’s the truth:

What you don’t do determines what you can do.

And the best way I’ve found to decide what you won’t do is using a not-to-do list.

Your not-to-do list will help you:

  • Prioritize your tasks better
  • Manage your time more efficiently
  • Free up more time for activities that bring you happiness
  • Reduce stress
  • Break bad habits
  • Improve productivity in the long run

Here’s how to create your not-to-do list.

What is a Not-To-do List?

the not-to-do list

A not-to-do list is like a list of things you’re deciding not to do. 

These are the tasks that don’t match your goals, drain your energy, or zap your motivation. These could also be things you don’t like or work that’s not necessary for you.

Your not-to-do list is your declaration of independence from these time-wasters.

These tasks often sneak onto your regular to-do list. You are unable to stop doing them. But deep down, you know you shouldn’t be spending time on them.

Making a not-to-do list helps you tackle these tasks once and for all.

It’s a place where you write down everything you won’t waste time and energy on anymore. So, you’re gonna delete, delegate, or just say no when they try to sneak into your to-do list.

Creating your own not-to-do list means you’re promising to let go of these things.

It’s like cleaning the house for your time and energy.

How to Create Your Own Not-To-Do List

Step 1: Get some data

To create your not-to-do list, we first need to analyze your work over the last few weeks or months.

To gather your data:

  • Look at your old to-do lists
  • Check your calendar for meetings and other time blocks
  • Go through your emails from the last few months
  • Review your notes

Write down any task that doesn’t align with your goals, drains your energy, or saps your motivation.

Next, it’s time for a quick brain dump. Write down work habits you have and recurring tasks that you need to do.

Finally, look to the future and your obligations for the next few weeks. Are there tasks scheduled that are not aligned with your current goals? Write these down as well.

Now you have a list of possible candidates for your not-to-do list.

It’s time to filter them out.

Step 2: Identify the tasks that should be on your not-to-do list

Grab your starting list and look for:

  1. Distractions and time-wasters. Such as checking email first thing in the morning or many times per day. Or constantly checking social media or your phone
  2. Energy-draining activities. Those tasks that just suck the energy out of you. For example: giving too much time to negative people and situations. Or taking on too many commitments or tasks
  3. Low-value tasks. You’d be surprised at the number of things on your to-do list that you don’t need to do at all. Such as attending unnecessary meetings or tasks that don’t bring you any value

Can you immediately spot them?

Remember the Pareto Principle: 80% of your impact comes from 20% of your tasks:

not-to-do list the pareto principle

So why not optimize for that 20%?

To go deeper, ask yourself:

  • Is anything bad going to happen if I don’t do this?
  • Can I automate or delegate this task?
  • Does this activity always drag me down?

Answer yes to any of those questions and you have a prime candidate for your not-to-do list.

By the end of this simple exercise, you’ll have your no-to-do list ready.

My Not-To-Do List: 7 Ideas to Kickstart Your Not-To-Do List

Here are a few examples of items on my not-to-do list:

#1 Do not check email constantly

I don’t want to check email, I want to process it. The goal is to get to inbox zero every session. I batch my email processing twice per day: before lunch and at the end of the day. This way I can start my days doing deep work.

#2 Do not attend useless meetings

If I am taking a meeting, there should be a clear agenda and outcome for the session. If those are not clear, I ask other people for more information before hopping on a call. Sometimes, we resolve the matter via email and the meeting is not needed at all.

#3 Do not drink coffee after 3 pm

I really like coffee and it acts as a sort of ritual for me. But I stop drinking coffee in the afternoon so it doesn’t disrupt my sleep.

#4 Do not do personal tasks during work hours

This is a hard one for me as I work from home. When I’m tempted to do a personal task during work hours, I schedule it on my calendar when I’m off work.

#5 Do not work after work

When I turn off my computer, my day is over. I know rest is as important as actual work for long-term productivity and performance. I also make sure I take enough breaks during the day.

#6 Do not skip exercise

Related to the previous point, exercise is vital for mental and physical health. I make sure I do any kind of physical activity every single day.

#7 Do not try to get things perfect the first time

I’m a bit of a perfectionist so this is a reminder that helps me overcome that. I try to get to good enough and then iterate, rather than trying to get it absolutely perfect the first time.

How to Use the Not-To-Do List for a Specific Goal or Area

You can also use the not-to-do list for a special goal or area.

Here’s how:

First, pick a goal or area you’d like to improve at work.

Then, grab a piece of paper and draw a clear line down the middle.

On the left side, write down all your daily tasks. Be as specific as you can. And on the right side, make a list of your biggest “wins”. These are your proudest work achievements.

Now, draw lines connecting each win to the daily tasks that contributed to it. Circle those tasks—those are the real MVPs.

Finally, look at what’s left, the tasks without circles. These are the tasks that you should either stop doing, do less of, or delegate to someone else.

By saying no to tasks that don’t align with your goals, you’re freeing up valuable time to focus on what truly matters.

Feel free to run this exercise in any part of your life that could use a bit of trimming. Be bold.

And don’t forget to factor in what brings you joy. In the end, that’s what it’s all about—making space for what makes you genuinely happy.

The Power of the Not-To-Do List

Now comes the trickiest part – making these changes.

Push those tasks away and make sure they stay gone. No need to explain; it’s action time.

Every morning, glance at your list to remind yourself what’s a definite yes and what’s a firm no.

A not-to-do list isn’t just about dumping tasks you dislike. It’s about cutting the ones messing with your productivity. Once you’ve got your not-to-do list, you’ll find extra time in your days.

When faced with new tasks or exciting ideas, ask yourself: Does it really belong on my to-do list, or is it a not-to-do?

Guard your time and energy fiercely. Stick to your script to turn down tasks when necessary.

Review your not-to-do list every three months. As you get the hang of it, you should add more stuff to it.

And who knows?

Perhaps your not-to-do list might even outgrow your to-do list someday. It’s all about finding that sweet balance.

Tags:: tasks, time management, To-Do List

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