Not-to-do list: a conscious way to break bad habits

Reading time: 5 minutes

The good old to-do list is a staple of most productivity systems, used to keep track of tasks and manage your focus throughout the day. While to-do lists are powerful, a complementary method can further increase our productivity: the not-to-do list. As the name indicates, it consists in listing all of the behaviors you want to avoid. How does it work, and what kind of habits do you want to include in your personal not-to-do list?

What you don’t do matters as much as what you do

Focusing on what matters requires to protect our time and mental energy. Each day, we waste resources because of useless tasks, inefficient processes, time-sucking products, and bad habits. A not-to-do list is a way to identify these black holes so you can make a conscious effort to avoid them.

In the words of Tim Ferris, who is a proponent of the not-to-do list: “It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing.”

In order to create your not-to-do list, block some time to review your tasks from the previous month. Start with what appears in your old to-do lists, then check your calendar for meetings and other time slots you may have blocked. Finally, think about other habits that may not appear in your to-do list and calendar, such as checking your emails throughout the day, drinking coffee in the afternoon, or menial tasks that regularly find you.

Generally, you want to add to your not-to-do list anything that is emotionally draining, out of your control, bad for your health, detrimental to your relationships with others, or has little impact on the value of your output.

What to include in your not-to-do list

Your not-to-do list can include items from all areas of life, including your work, health, and relationships. Creating your list is a personal experience, and everyone’s list will be different. However, here are ten ideas to get your started.

  1. Do not constantly check your emails. Instead, batch your email-checking time in one or two slots during the day. Some people also add an auto-responder to let senders know they may not get an immediate response.
  2. Do not eat lunch at your desk. Taking breaks is essential for your mental and physical health. Lunchtime is an opportunity to leave your desk, go for a walk, and catch up with colleagues. In addition, properly focusing on your food will help you avoid eating too quickly.
  3. Do not attend useless meetings. We are all too familiar with “that meeting that could have been an email.” Encourage asynchronous communication within your team, and never agree to meetings that don’t have a clear agenda.
  4. Do not abuse time blocking. While blocking time is a great way to regain control over your schedule, being overzealous can prevent you from experiencing serendipitous opportunities and spontaneous creativity. Make sure to leave unblocked time in your calendar.
  5. Do not spend too much time on social media. Quickly checking your friend’s vacation pictures on Instagram or the latest updates from relevant industry experts on Twitter is harmless, but we often find ourselves endlessly doomscrolling, which can impact both our productivity and our mental health. You can set up a timer when browsing social media, and block these websites the rest of the time.
  6. Do not try to reply to every single email. Not all emails require a reply. Be mindful of yours and other people’s time by only replying to emails when it is absolutely necessary. Is there a question that needs to be answered? Are you the right person to answer that question, or can someone else in the email thread take care of it? Is it from someone you know? If not, you can safely archive the email without replying.
  7. Do not drink coffee late in the afternoon. There is nothing wrong with a few cups of coffee during the day. However, try to not become overly reliant on caffeine to sustain your focus and alertness, and make sure to stop drinking coffee in the afternoon so it doesn’t disrupt your sleep.
  8. Do not go to bed later than intended. Bedtime procrastination can affect your sleep, which will result in negative effects on your mental and physical health. Try to stick to a routine and to get enough hours of sleep so your mind and body can recharge.
  9. Do not bring your phone into your bedroom. What you put on your bedside table will affect what you do before going to sleep. Blue light from phones, tablets and laptops are notoriously bad: they can suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness. Instead, focus on analog activities such as reading a book, journaling, or meditating.
  10. Do not try to please everyone. All of the above not-to-do items require learning how to say no. Avoid the “yes autopilot” by setting clear boundaries based on your goals and values.

Your not-to-do list does not have to be fixed and can evolve over time. Spend a couple of minutes reviewing it in the morning to remind yourself of what you committed to not do during the day, and periodically review the items you included to see if they still feel aligned with the tasks and habits you want to avoid.