Why You Should Have a Do Not Do List

Why You Should Have a Do Not Do List

Why You Should Have a Do Not Do List

To say that we have a tortured relationship with our checklists would be understating the case. In fact, our daily lives are often dictated by the items featured there. We get little endorphin hits every time we check something off, and feel like a failure every time an item remains there, day after day, week after week, reminding us of all we have yet to accomplish.

That’s why so many of today’s leading and most creative minds are beginning to make Do Not Do Lists as an essential method for fostering creativity and productivity in their professional lives. As the name implies, a Do Not Do List is a list of items you will not do, whether this pertains to every day productivity-derailing habits, or to key elements of your job title you’re trying to move away from.

So just what is a Do Not Do List, what’s the deeper reasoning behind making one, and how might you go about it? Let’s take a look.

Why a Do Not Do List is Crucial

There are numerous good reasons to make a Do Not Do list, including:

1. Your Career or Business Needs a Big Change

Whether you’ve gotten a promotion, are beginning a new job or a new career entirely, or are pivoting your business, making big changes to your workaday life is an essential part of staying creative and constantly moving forward professionally. But doing so requires consciously shedding old habits and approaches, even if they’re the very same methods that have brought you success in the past.

Why is this so? Well, if you’ve been great at something for awhile – and have become known as the go-to person or business for that skill – that’s what clients, customers and colleagues will constantly turn to you to do. And whether from guilt, old habit, the comfort of assured income, or sheer work-a-holism, it can be difficult not to continually take those opportunities when they present themselves. But if you do that, you’re never going to have the time, energy, or mental resources to make the shifts you really want to make. Even if you try, when your mind is half-elsewhere, you’ll be much more likely to fail, and then you’ll take this as a sign you shouldn’t have tried something new anyway – but that’s not the case. You just needed to be all-in.

As we’ll explore below, a Do Not Do List will help you avoid this fate by prompting you to think through what these old habits are, and committing to, well, not doing them.

2. Expertise, Mastery, Efficiency and Productivity All Require Focus

Doing all of this may feel so counterintuitive at first, especially if this is your first real pivot. After all, when we begin our careers, we often must foster an attitude of, “Yes, I’ll do that for you!” in order to master the skills in our chosen career, find our niche, and build a professional network. But as our competencies grow along with recognition from the wider world thereof, we ultimately have to narrow and focus in order to master our respective crafts and become the kind of experts that clients, customers, and companies can’t live without.

And of course, even when you already are a master, concentration is required in order to efficiently complete what you need to, let alone to inject your work with the kind of creativity, intellectualism and joy that foster true leadership and change.

What do you have to do in order to focus? You have to be pretty brutal about axing the non-essential tasks from your every day – you need a Do Not Do List.

3. People Are Finite Resources

As Michael Hyatt articulates so well, people are finite resources. There is only so much you can do in a day – and there’s only so much your employees can do in one day too. Overburdening your workforce with too many tasks – especially when those tasks cover diffuse goals and job titles – will only create anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelm, which in turn will make everyone less efficient at doing their jobs. Respecting our own limitations is key to overcoming them.

4. Normal To Do Lists Make Us Feel Bad

Sure, it’s good to track what you have to do in a day, but most of us tend to be too ambitious with our to do lists, adding way more than it’s humanly possible to accomplish in one day. There is also the fact that to do lists are proactive, while the everyday operations of a business are reactive, meaning we have to put down whatever we’re doing to answer a call, help a colleague, or do whatever urgent need arises. The traditional to do list has no way of rewarding these efforts, and in fact comes with a nice wallop of guilt for doing them instead of what we’ve written down. We finish the day, see that we haven’t crossed anything off the to do list and feel disappointed in ourselves, rather than recognizing all that we actually got done. That’s certainly not a motivating feeling.

How to Make One

To make a Do Not Do List, begin by writing down every project you’re currently doing, and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this make me happy?
  2. Is this essential to my career?
  3. Am I doing this in the most efficient manner?

If you cannot say “yes” to at least two of these, that project is one you should add to the Do Not Do List.

If you’re making a career or business pivot, you might also want to ask a few more questions, both in terms of projects themselves and in terms of specific tasks:

  1. Is this helping me get closer to my new career, or does it have to do with my old career?
  2. Is there someone else (e.g. a colleague or a likeminded professional) who could also make a great fit for this project or task? (Asking this will help you refer on to others, thereby helping to alleviate any guilt you might have in not taking a job, project, or task).

In addition to making a Do Not Do List in this way, there are a few other things you can do in order to maximize its usefulness:

  1. Find an accountability buddy. Since a Do Not Do list can be counterintuitive, and you may have to overcome various psychological hurdles to commit to it, it can be useful to arrange regular check-ins with a buddy to ensure you’re sticking to your goals. You might, for instance, have them ask you those strange, counterintuitive questions like, “How many leads in [your old industry or role] did you turn down or refer elsewhere this week?” Or, “What new items did you add to your Do Not Do List this week?”
  2. Write down items as they come up. As you work outside of what has become your everyday norm, you’ll find yourself doing tasks you could have never anticipated doing. That’s a good thing, and exactly what you need to be doing in order to challenge yourself and grow. Write these items down as you go so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment when you look at all the surprising things you’ve done.
  3. Don’t think about them. Don’t talk about them. Do not do them! When an item is on the Do Not Do List, it shouldn’t be on your mind in any way. Writing them down is meant to help put these items out of your mind so you can concentrate on what you really need to. So make sure you’re really, truly, filing your Do Not Dos away.
  4. Make peace with your current path. One of the most difficult things about narrowing your focus – and the very impetus behind making a Do Not Do List – is that doing so requires putting certain ideas or approaches on the shelf. You might, for instance, think your business could produce fifteen different items, but know that you’ll be more agile and productive if you start with two and scale up. Alternatively, you could really love contributing to the boards of three nonprofits, but know that doing so takes away from being truly effective at any one, let alone in your career or personal life. Still, adding these items to your Do Not Do List can be a painful thing to do. That’s okay. Know that by focusing, you’ll be more effective at getting your chosen things done, and then the chances are that, if these other things are worthy, you’ll get back to them eventually. And when you do, you’ll have the energy and mental resources to give them proper justice.

A Few Sample Items to Add to the List

Your Do Not Do List will necessarily be customized to you and to your specific job, business, and tasks. Still, there are a number of more general mentality items to add.

  • Do not be close-minded. As you move forward, you will be presented with solutions that are easy, comfortable, and familiar. That doesn’t mean these solutions are the right ones, especially if you’re trying to implement a major change. Don’t be afraid to think new.
  • Do not waste time and energy worrying about the “what ifs.” In any given day, there are a million ways outside of our control we could all kick the bucket, but if we spent our time worrying about them, we’d never do anything. The same goes for your career. You can’t control what you can’t control, and there’s no use letting these things paralyze you. Your number one job is to move forward.
  • Do not answer calls from unknown numbers. Or any unsolicited email sales pitches, or requests to do anything that would direct your time and energy away from what you need to be doing. The last thing you want is to find yourself caught up in someone else’s sales spiral.
  • Do not grab coffee with someone just because they asked you. For similar reasons, be wary of any casual solicitations from people who “just want to pick your brain” over coffee. This is not to say you shouldn’t be generous with your time, or help other people up the ladder; doing so is good karma and good community building. But if you’re asked often, put a limit on how many of these kinds of good will meetings you take, give them a strict time limit, and ask the other person to come with an agenda.
  • Do not set unreasonable expectations with clients. Do this, and you’ll spend more time dealing with emotions than doing the actual job you need to do.
  • Do not work more to fix overwhelm. Instead prioritize, delay, and communicate!
  • Do not check email “just because.” Set aside a specific time to check email, and do not check outside of those times. Email checking feels important, but it’s really a distracting addiction. Treat it as a discrete task like any other.
  • Do not do anything you can delegate to somebody else. If you’re great at what you do, there’s no need to prove you are a jack of all trades, nor to control every task that needs to be done in your office. Delegating will make you more effective at completing the challenges you’ve set for yourself.
  • Do not forget how much it sucks working 9 to 5 for someone else. If you work for yourself, keep in mind that the more you distract yourself, the less effective you’ll be, the more likely you’ll have to return to regular office life. So, yeah. Don’t do this.

In Short

It’s time to end the tyrannical reign of the to do list. With a Do Not Do List, you’ll re-conceptualize your identity so that you can do the creative, groundbreaking work you were meant to do – and you’ll be more efficient and productive as you do so than you ever thought possible. The real question is: what’s the first thing you’ll add to your list?

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