Do You Have a Not-to-Do List? You Should

6 Steps to Greater Freedom

To-Do lists are so popular they need no introduction. You’re surrounded by them: at the grocery store, around the house, even in outer space!

It’s easy to see why these agendas are so popular. You list the items that need to get done on a piece of paper or a device, preferably in the order of most to least important, and then cross them off as you go, giving you a sense of real accomplishment.

It’s a simple, elegant, powerful solution as to how to organize your days. But there’s a catch.

When To-Dos To-Don’t

Often, To-Do lists give you more items than you can reasonably—or even unreasonably—get done. What then? Enter the Not-to-Do List.

I came up with this idea several years ago and keep coming back to it. Happily, several people have joined the not-to-do bandwagon.

The idea is to list all of the activities you are intentionally going to stop doing for the sake of greater productivity.

And here’s why that’s important: As you succeed at work, you attract more and more assignments. It’s like you become a task magnet.

“Give it to Lori,” colleagues will say. “She’ll do a great job!”

But people are a finite resource. You only have so much energy and so much time, no matter how good you are.

When You Really Need a Not-to-Do List

The only way for a super-productive person to continue to grow professionally without going crazy is to periodically decide what you are not going to do.

This is particularly important when you have just been promoted to a new job. That’s when you really face the pressure to perform, and it’s the most difficult to say no. But you must say no if you are going to say yes to the things that really count—both in your job and in your life.

Keep in mind that the great risk for most people in new jobs is that you will continue to do your old job.

“Now why would people do that?” you ask. “That’s crazy!”

Probably because it is familiar. And your supervisor never said you had to stop doing it. Being aware of this dynamic is half the battle.

How Do I Create a Not-to-Do List?

The other half of the battle is to sit down and physically create your Not-to-Do List. Here are the steps I suggest to make that a concrete reality.

  1. Find a quiet place where you can think.
  2. Look at your previous month’s calendar activities. Write down anything you’re not sure really fits your current job description.
  3. Look at your upcoming appointments for the next month. Write down things that are questionable in terms of your current job description.
  4. Go through your to-do list(s) and do the same thing. Write down the questionable activities, given your new role.
  5. You should now have a list of Not-to-Do candidates.
  6. Now go through the list and put an asterisk beside each item that is significant enough that you want to add it to your official Not-to-Do List and shove it off your plate.

What Next?

Once you get your list done, share it with your colleagues and your assistant, if you have one. They can help you screen out tasks that no longer belong on your To-Do list so you can focus on the things that are most important to the organization.

It’s especially important to discuss your Not-to-Do List with your boss. You’ll need her buy-in so she doesn’t keep assigning you work that you have mutually agreed is no longer what you ought to be doing.

My Old Not-to-Do List

Just to give you some idea of what to include, here is the Not-to-Do list I wrote back when I became CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. It prepared me well for that job and for later success as founder of Michael Hyatt & Company.

Not To-Do List
  1. Review book proposals or manuscripts for possible publication.
  2. Write deal memos.
  3. Negotiate contracts with agents or authors.
  4. Meet prospective new authors unless they have significant brand potential.
  5. Attend publishing meetings unless the topic is vision or strategy.
  6. Write marketing plans.
  7. Travel by car to other cities unless they are less than one hour a way.
  8. Check my own voice mail.
  9. Read unfiltered e-mail.
  10. Answer my own phone.
  11. Respond to (or feel the need to respond to) unsolicited sales pitches or proposals of any kind.
  12. Attend process review meetings unless there’s a compelling reason for me to be there.
  13. Attend trade shows for more than two days.
  14. Serve as a director on more than two outside boards.

Strike a Balance

You don’t have to be grappling with a new role to find the Not-to-Do List extremely helpful. If you want balance in your life, you want a Not-to-Do list.

Remember, the To-Do list tendency is to grow and grow. If you don’t periodically take a machete to it, your To-Do list will eventually crowd out everything. So get yourself a Not-to-Do list and swing away.

Question: What do you need to stop doing?

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