Creating Your “Not To-Do” List

All of us are familiar with the To-Do list. Most of us create one at least weekly, many daily. Lots of tasks slip onto this checklist, often as directed by others. Some even get added to our routine out of a misplaced sense of responsibility, or even guilt.

Today I want to suggest an important exercise that can save you a great deal of both time and mental stress. That is creating your “not to-do” list.

Here’s the challenge. Most of us are overachievers, we are driven and ambitious. We rise to the occasion on a daily basis, accomplishing more than the “mere mortals” around us. What often happens is that attitude gets us into trouble. We bite off more than we can (or should) chew and find ourselves more stressed than successful.

One way I’ve avoided that is by having my “not to-do” list. What I’ve learned is that by recognizing and eliminating daily time wasters as well as scrupulously evaluating large commitments I’ve become more efficient and productive. Here’s what I mean.

Identifying daily time wasters is pretty easy. Here are some of my rules:

  1. I don’t check my email first thing in the morning. In part because the first two hours of the morning is really productive time for me and I want to focus on doing the highest value tasks while I’m “in the zone.” The second reason is that occasionally an email is less than positive. Perhaps someone didn’t like an article I’ve written or is offering some other negative criticism.

I don’t want to be distracted by these. Reading something like this early in the day gets my mind working on witty retorts that would put the critic in his place (of course I’d never actually send them!) I want to use my most productive mental time to be just that: most productive.

  1. Breakfast meetings. I don’t do them anymore, for the same reason.
  2. Answering the phone every time it rings. Caller ID is a wonderful invention. Some calls have to be acknowledged no matter what I’m doing, but most can be returned later in the day. I have heard the “do it now” argument that says take the call and get it out of the way rather than create the “phone tag” scenario later in the day. For some that works, not me. I want to stay focused on my highest priority and not be distracted by a call.
  3. Sleeping in, mindless internet surfing, gossiping with co-workers about sports or whatever. As much as anything, making yourself aware of these behaviors will help change them.

Here are some long term time wasters that are on my “not to-do” list as well:

  1. Unnecessary travel. I like to book my meetings out of the office on a single day or two during the week. Then I’m not spending hours in my truck trying to get across town day after day.
  2. Taking on projects that are not directly helpful to meeting my goals. Just because I have the ability to do something does not mean that I should do it. When evaluating my participation in any new project or partnership that will take my time, I consider how it contributes to my annual and quarterly goals. If it doesn’t, I won’t join in.
  3. Business/Social events. There are many opportunities in my business to “network” or join groups that are designed to help business owners meet new potential clients. At least in my community I’ve learned that with rare exception it is not worth my time to attend regularly. In fact, I have not renewed my membership in most of these organizations.

I do still attend an event occasionally. But now it’s more like once each quarter rather than a couple of times each month.

One further thought about your “Not To-Do” list. Schedule a time block of two hours and review your calendar for the previous six months. Look at all of the commitments you made and ruthlessly evaluate whether they helped you work toward the goals that are most important to you. Keep this list handy and refer to it when the “opportunity” to participate in a new activity comes along.

Evaluating your “not to-do” list is a quarterly activity. After a short time it will be so ingrained in your mind that you will naturally organize your daily to-do list in such a way as to avoid these less productive actions.