The Wisdom of Creating a Not-To-Do List
Written by Lisa Montanaro | September 28, 2012

As a productivity consultant, success coach, and business strategist, it is my “job” to ensure that my clients are being the most productive they can be in order to be successful. Or is it? It may come as a surprise that many of my clients seek me out not to be more productive, but to actually slow down and do less. So, does being more productive mean you have to do more, but being less productive means you are doing less?

To be fair, they are not mutually exclusive. When a person learns and adopts strategies that make him or her more productive, this usually leads to increased time. That increased time can be put towards more work, more play, more sleep, more exercise (any exercise for most people!), or more family time. I like to think that helping my clients be more productive means that they can get their tasks and responsibilities done in less time and then use that found time for greater life-work balance, if they so desire.

When most people think of becoming more productive, they start with creating a To-Do List. And that often works wonders, as it allows you to pull all of the nagging tasks and responsibilities out of your too-stuffed brain and dump them on paper or in an electronic format to keep track of them. But many times the To-Do List doesn’t get done! Why? Because it is just too darn long for one little person to possibly do.

So, why not create a Not-To-Do List instead. I know it may sound strange, but hear me out. Taking items off of your list and deciding not to do them can be incredibly freeing. Often, we list too many tasks on our To-Do Lists. If you look at the average person’s To-Do List, it is almost physically impossible for a person to accomplish all of those To-Do’s in a reasonable amount of time. Now, this may be because they are combining their long-term Master Project List with their Daily To-Do List (a whole ‘nother problem that we can’t cover here, but take a look at my article called “To-Do Lists: You Gotta Keep ’em Separated for tips on how to separate out those two very different lists). But often it is because they just list and list and list and list, with no rhyme or reason as to whether they want to do the task, can do the task, or will do the task.

So, how do you create a Not-To-Do List? You have two options.

You can take your existing To-Do List and unclog it. That entails going through it and asking yourself some probing questions.

  • Do I really want to do this?
  • Am I the only one that can do this?
  • Do I have to do this now, or can it wait until a later time in the future and if so, when?
  • What will happen if I don’t do this?
  • Do I love this activity or task?
  • Have I ever not done this task in the past, and if so, what were the consequences?

You get the picture. The questioning is to determine how committed you are to each task or activity, what would happen if you deleted them from your list, passed the buck to someone else, or procrastinated (yes, you are allowed to do that if you plan for it!) and did the task at a later time. The result is giving your To-Do List a diet!

The other way to create a No-To-Do List is from scratch. Take out a clean sheet of paper, or open a blank screen on your electronic device, and label it Not-To-Do List. Then start listing the items, tasks, activities, and responsibilities that you will not do.

  • You can start with things you said yes to that you would rather not do. Often, our knee-jerk reaction to any request is yes, but after proper time and reflection, we realize we don’t want to take on that task.
  • Add items that you can give to someone else. Yes, this is called delegating, and it works wonders if you allow yourself to relinquish control.
  • Add items that you absolutely do not want to do or aren’t uniquely brilliant at.
  • Add items that have been collecting dust on your To-Do List for ages and face the music that you are never going to do them, and that is okay.

Regardless of which method you use, you will wind up with a Not-To-Do List. Take a good look at it, learn from it, and by all means, use it. The act of letting go of all of those to-do’s will not only literally free up some precious time and energy, but will hopefully empower you to re-frame what your definition of productive is for the future.

Meet the Author

Helping others be the best versions of themselves gets me jazzed!

I’ve worn many hats in my lifetime—often at the same time—while enjoying fulfilling careers. I’ve been a performer, teacher, sign language instructor, lawyer, career counselor, law professor, coach, consultant, mediator, entrepreneur, speaker, trainer, writer, and author. 

I’m an eternal optimist and life-long learner, constantly researching ways to improve personal and professional effectiveness. And it brings me great joy to then pass on the results of that persistent curiosity to my clients and audiences. 

Of all the career hats I’ve been privileged to wear, my favorite is owner of this business since 2002. Why? Because it provides me the opportunity to work with wonderful organizational and individual clients. On any given day, I get to connect deeply with audiences, work with dedicated teams, improve workplaces, watch clients have a-ha moments, and know I’ve made a difference in their lives and careers. And that is very satisfying.