The not-to-do list

The not-to-do list

Lists are definitely a way to organize yourself, if you use them in a wise and lean and agile way – meaning that you keep your lists flexible, do regular retrospection to update your lists and adjust your tasks, limit your workload in a weekly or bi-weekly sprint, focus on the most important tasks every day, have a visual representation of your sprint progress, and so on. Consequently, there are several lists you should keep in order to organize yourself perfectly (you can keep them in notepad as part of your digital brains):

  • Vision list or Vision Backlog of everything you want to experience in life
  • 100 Days List or a 100 Days Backlog with all the tasks that are waiting for you in the next 100 days
  • Personal Sprint Backlog or Bi-Weekly Sprint, represented on a Kanban board (to-do, in progress, done)
  • Daily 3T list with your daily three most important tasks that you will perform in the flow
  • Not-to-do list

We will talk a lot about other lists in other blog posts, but let’s start with the not-to-do list. Your lists can quickly become overloaded with tasks; especially if you have a problem saying no, delegating and outsourcing or you have poor task management and can’t distinguish very well between urgent, important, low- and high-impact tasks. Or maybe you’re prone to distractions and bad habits. Even more, you may be organized very well, but there’s usually a weak spot you have, tasks that you shouldn’t be doing because they have a low impact on your long-term quality of life, but you like them, are naturally dragged to them or there’s too much social pressure for you to say no, or whatever.

One way to help you with that is to have a not-to-do list. A not-to-do list is a list of tasks you simply 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 to focus better and to only perform tasks that have the biggest impact on your value production and happiness in life.

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 or struggle
  2. Everything that’s considered a distraction from staying productive (e-mail, news etc.)
  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 (small projects are always in the way of the bigger ones)
  6. All the tasks that really 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
  10. Everything else that you can systematically eliminate and bring a bigger margin into your life

The general idea of a not-to-do list is that you don’t have to struggle with self-discipline, and it should help you to eliminate bad habits from your life. You don’t have to weigh the pros and cons, be in a dilemma of whether 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.

As you will see, things on your not-to-do list are usually all the things that you know and feel deep down you shouldn’t be doing, but somehow you struggle with self-discipline and don’t have the willpower to really stop doing them. A not-to-do list can help you systematically take care of that kind of tasks once and for all.

Not-to-do list and templates

For the tasks you really struggle to say no to, but you know and feel you shouldn’t be performing, you can use templates to politely say no to people or to delegate and outsource tasks. It saves you time and there’s less emotional pressure compared to writing a decline every time. Templates are, of course, the most useful for e-mail replies, but you can also use pre-prepared declines when people are asking you in person to do something that is a distraction from your true goals.

Almost all e-mail clients have the option of templates and canned responses. If your e-mail client doesn’t offer such an option, you can use many plugins and extensions like Gorgias or Yesware. You should come up with something polite for declines 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, there isn’t even a second of doubt in your heart of whether you should do it or not, you 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!

Do and dont


How to prepare your own not-to-do list

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

  1. First you need to take the time to make the list. It’s definitely worth it to take 30 to 60 minutes to save hours and hours in your everyday life later on.
  2. The second step is retrospection. You have to analyze your tasks from previous months, especially the recurring ones. Open your calendar or to-do list and look for patterns. You should do the same with different requests you get from people in personal and business life.
  3. Dedicate a few minutes to every recurring task. First define how big of an impact the task has on your future. How much value added you’re really creating by performing the task. Then ask yourself if you can delete, delegate or outsource the tasks in order to do something else with more value. In the last step, 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.
  4. Identify low-level tasks, tasks you can delegate, 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, the ones you have problems saying no to, etc. Find the recurring ones and put them on your not-to-do list.
  5. Prepare the templates for kind declines and 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 in 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 the day. Instead of only asking yourself which tasks you’ll perform on a certain day, also ask yourself and make a list of tasks you certainly won’t do that day. It will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders, you’ll be able to focus on the most important tasks and you will keep your decision muscle strong for important decisions.

Every day, you shouldn't prepare only your daily to-do list, but also a list of things you certainly won't do that day!

Practical examples


Here you can download two templates (Excel, PDF for print) that will help you create your own not-to-do list:

You can check out my not-to-do list as an example.