Using a to-don’t list to boost productivity


As a productivity enthusiast, I have tried a lot of things.

The bedrock of achieving decent productivity is knowing and listing what you want to do.

These lists are commonly known as to-do lists, and combined with time-blocking, they become a potent duo.

While a to-do list often helps you structure your day, the "to-don't" list can help you enforce that structure.

In this post, we will look at the to-don't list and why it is so essential to maintain one.

Why is a to-don't list important?

Using the age-old mental model of Via Negativa, you could make a case that success is often not only about things you do but also about things you avoid.

There is no point in exercising 4 hours a day if you will feast on a couple of cheesecakes every night.

While doing valuable tasks moves you closer to your goal, doing the unproductive tasks nullify that progress and keep you from progressing or even active push you back.

There are more than a few advantages of maintaining a to-don't list. Here are some:

  • Identifies productivity drainers in your day
  • Gives you freedom from getting trapped in useless tasks
  • Helps maintain the structure you want for your day
  • Makes it easy to avoid pitfalls and learn from past mistakes
  • Reduces mid-day or afternoon slumps
  • Helps adopt the discard or delegate approach to certain tasks

How to build a to-don't list

Building the to-don't list is easy, but it requires a bit of introspection and absolute honesty from the practitioner.

The to-don't list will often contain things that you might enjoy that negatively impact your day and life.

It is about honest confrontation and acceptance of certain drawbacks of your behavior.

If unproductive people have their breakfast after 9:00 AM, then having a healthy breakfast earlier might increase your chances of being productive.

Here are some questions you need to ask yourself to get the list of items that need to go on the to-don't list:

  • What activity or practice makes your mornings unproductive?
  • What activities do you fall back on when you are stressed?
  • What do you do when you are bored?
  • How do you escape when you feel overwhelmed with work?
  • What sites do you hop on between tasks to kill time?
  • Who do you communicate with when you want to kill time when you should be working?
  • What type of tasks do you find are easier but add little value to your life?
  • What type of food makes you feel sleepy?
  • What activities do you do that make it harder to fall asleep?
  • What excuse task do you use to procrastinate on important tasks?

Answering these questions will give you the list of things you need to add to the to-don't list and provide some clarity about your thought process, triggers, and escape mechanisms.


Possible additions to the to-don't list

Here is a list of common detractors that hamper your productivity.

These are just suggestions, and your list might have some or none of them. The purpose of this is to give you a starting point.

So here are items that will go on our to-don't list:

  • Start using social media as soon as you wake up.
  • Eat a late breakfast.
  • Engage in self-loathing to avoid working on challenging tasks.
  • Open YouTube on the same browser where you work.
  • Pick up your phone when you feel overwhelmed with tasks.
  • Head to your fridge when you feel overwhelmed with tasks.
  • Use your phone just before going to sleep.
  • Eat a heavy meal before essential tasks.
  • Call a friend who drains your energy.
  • Get on Reddit when bored or stressed.
  • Try to do everything by yourself, even if it is not productive.
  • Pursue tasks that are low on priority.
  • Pursue tasks that need not be done soon.

What to do with tasks on the list?

Now that we have identified tasks for the list, the immediate step is to decide what (if at all) to do about these tasks.

There are three options: Discard, defer or delegate.

Discard the tasks that are not at all important but take significant time out of your day.

If something is not adding value, remove it to make space for something that does.

Defer (delay) the ones that are important but are not time-sensitive or critical, and they take up time from critical tasks. If it is not urgent or essential, keep it in your queue but move it down the priority list.

Finally, delegate the critical and time-sensitive tasks that are unproductive for you to pursue. Adding more responsibilities for its sake is not ideal; pick your battles.

Final thoughts on the to-don't list

The discard list evolves over time and is often something you mostly keep adding to.

The list is the accumulative wisdom based on your tendencies; ergo it is an asset worth using.

Thanks for reading.