Photo by Beatrice Barbazzeni on Canva

To-Do or Not-to-DO: The Dilemma of Productivity

“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.” (Tim Ferris)

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“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.” (Tim Ferris)

Are you obsessed with being productive, effective, and efficient? Do you have the need to be productive even in your free time? Do you hate wasting time? Do you feel accomplished and satisfied at the end of the day only if you completed lots of tasks? Do you like to say “I am busy” or “sorry, I don’t have time!”? If you can(even partially) relate, welcome to the team!

However, even when working smarter instead of harder, fulfilling the need of feeling busy all time doesn’t always mean being productive. The worst that can happen is that you would often feel uncomfortable if you cannot, for one reason or another hit your schedule.

Life is a waterfall of things “to do.” However, do these tasks have the same priorities? Which things have a higher value? Where should you direct your attention first? Could you feel satisfied and gratified even by “doing things differently”?

In this article, I discuss the importance of creating your own “not-to-do list” which would help you to highlight those bad habits (processed unconsciously) that distract you from achieving your goals more effectively. This list should be accompanied by your “to-do list” to rock your tasks.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, a business individual, a student, or even a full-time parent, this article might be the right for you. Therefore,  keep reading!

Is it really bad to have a “to-do” list?

For any system, establishing a to-do list is a common practice to enhance productivity while tracking and managing the progress of tasks. However, having a to-do list and investing time in a task is not always the right way to achieve goals. Indeed, it may end up in two possible ways. Imagine you have to write an application. This task can be on top of your to-do list with higher priority. You start writing while completing ⅔ of it. But you get bored and you need a break. So you tick off this task from the checklist (because “almost done”) and decide to spend time on social media. However, this break takes more than enough and you realize you wasted your time without completing the task. Another way is the case in which you are a workaholic. In this case,  you start making a list of your tasks, but you think you can add more because you feel you need to be highly productive. Thus, from 10 items on this list, you write down 20 or even 30. The result? You end up stressed because you have so many things to do without thinking that you also need a break for yourself (and if you take a break you would feel guilty!)

Although the to-do list is a very powerful tool to manage your tasks, it is not always the best way to be productive and effective. So what to do instead? Not so many people use a “not-to-do list.” Indeed, to be productive it is important to get rid of bad habits and actions that are performed unconsciously and daily which decrease our attention and focus from those tasks which need priority and energy. This type of list is very personal and can be adapted at any time to match your current needs and life’s period.

What is a “not-to-do” list?

Differently from what you may expect, a not-to-do list is completely different from a to-do list. Indeed, this special list contains those things that waste your time and energy, pulling you away from reaching your long-term vision. Thus, having a not-to-do list would support your journey by helping you focus on making those little steps to achieve your moonshot. Imagine the 80/20 rule. Similarly, the not-to-do list establishes what should be eliminated from your daily habits to add more value to your actions. Indeed, this would include cutting out low-value habits, things you cannot control, things that can wait, or things that can be delivered and done by someone else.  In this way, you can clearly spend your energy on what matters by removing what is not relevant and essential.

So, how can you get started? Before making the list, you should think about your daily life and routine, your habits, and how you manage/perform tasks. Furthermore, think about what you want to do to remove these bad habits. To write your not-to-do list you may think about:

  1. What wastes your time: it refers to actions and habits that are meant to be for a few minutes (e.g., a little break to check social media) but turns into half an hour or even more.
  2. What makes you stressed: it refers to those things that bother and stress you out, making it even more difficult to get up in the morning and be motivated to start the day (e.g., things you don’t really want to have on your to-do list).
  3. What absorbs your energy: it refers to those things and actions that make you feel drained, moody, tired, and not motivated. Probably these are tasks that you feel monotonous.
  4. What is not a “must do”: sometimes, individuals put pressure on themselves for no reason while thinking that certain tasks must be done. This is just the effect of ideologies or social norms. Think twice if a task is really necessary or not and how you feel about it.
  5. What is not needed to be done (immediately): it is highly related to workaholic individuals. Sometimes we create a list of things to do just because we have the need to fill up the time feeling productive and accomplished. Is it so necessary to do everything? Maybe some resting and flexibility would be more effective in some instances.
  6. What you cannot control: many individuals need to control things, or things are done exactly in their own way while ending up stressed and drained. Learning to release control on what we cannot control is very helpful because it allows spending energy on tasks that really matter.

It may happen that when you realize how many bad habits you have that block your energies and focus to reach your vision, your not-to-do list would contain even more things than your to-do. Do not worry, this is absolutely fabulous because you start focusing on priorities and those things that matter in life! If your not-to-do list is also too long, just pick the most relevant 5 things. These are those things that you should absolutely avoid. You can also rewrite your list to match your new goals and needs by that time.

The “one-size-fit” list of no-go tasks and habits

Why does having a to-do list make us feel stressed and overloaded? As previously discussed, although having a to-do list is necessary to organize our tasks and goals, most of the time it turns out that this list can be easily overloaded, mainly if you are the type of person who is incapable of saying no or delegating tasks. However, this may happen if your management skills are low or if you are not able to assign the right priorities to your daily tasks. Therefore, having a not-to-do list would help individuals who struggle with self-discipline, have poor management skills, or are not goal-oriented. In addition, having a not-to-do list would simply define and clarify bad habits (low-value tasks) that should be avoided to become more efficient.

As previously discussed, the not-to-do list includes all those things you consciously know you shouldn’t keep spending time on but you still do, and maybe you even feel very guilty about. Having seen a few examples of these “low-value tasks and bad habits” how can you start preparing your “not-to-do list”?

#Phase 1: take your time to define your list. The more time you spend about thinking which low-value task you should better avoid, and more effective the list will be in saving your future time.

#Phase 2: keep records and analyze your tasks regularly (e.g., every month). Your list may need to be updated from time to time and feel free to adjust it according to your needs.

#Phase 3: be conscious and mindful about those tasks that should be on your list. You may ask yourself “how much value do I generate if  I delete this task?” or “can I delegate this task to be more effective on other high-value tasks?”. Afterward, while doing these “not-to-do” tasks, ask yourself “how do I feel when I do these tasks?” or “do these tasks make me procrastinate on high-value tasks?” or “do I feel guilty, stressed, negative, upset etc. while I do - not-to-do - tasks?”.

#Phase 4: most important, learn to say no to yourself and people and regularly check your list.

A few examples of a “not-to-do list” can be read here, here, and here.

Not-to-do list versus anti-to-do list

DO NOT confuse the not-to-do list with the anti-to-do list! What’s the difference?

A not-to-do list is a list of things you should avoid because these tasks may drain your energy, have low value, and detach you from achieving your goals. On the opposite side, the anti-to-do list is a list of tasks that you have already done. In other words, it is a column marked DONE on your Kanban Board. The anti-to-do list aims to motivate you to do even more tasks showing you how productive and effective you have been while assessing your progress constantly. Thus, this list would make you feel proud, optimistic, and satisfied about yourself and your capabilities, consequently boosting your energy and focus for the following day. Why not have one?

Final thoughts

Why is a Not To Do list more important than a To Do list?

In this article, I discussed the importance of having a “not-to-do-list” to help you avoid bad habits that detach your focus and attention from reaching your goals. Through the article, I explained the distinction between the classical “to-do-list” and the “not-to-do-list” by giving a few examples. Not only the “to-do” but also a “not-to-do” might increase our productivity by deleting anything that is unnecessary to re-direct energy to what matters and in things we want. Hence, a “not-to-do-list” has exactly this goal to maximize our performance re-orienting our actions and thoughts. Which are the most common things that we should avoid?

#1 trying to achieve and do anything at the same time

#2 replying to all emails and calls anytime (without establishing an order of priority)

#3 thinking that no things can be delayed

#4 incapability of establishing the right priorities while doing tasks

#5 thinking that being “perfect” is better than “good enough” or “delivery time”

#6 taking no breaks and time off

#7 incapability of saying “no” to others

Although the “not-to-do-list” is very personal to us, these examples would make you think about common mistakes and beliefs that for sure you might have already encountered. Now that you understood the importance of this list, it is your turn to make your own “not-to-do-list” to elevate your productivity to the next level!

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".