Why You Need a “Not-to-Do” List

Because what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

Merve Alsan
Jul 17, 2020 · 4 min read

I love to-do lists. It gives purpose to my day and helps me focus on the tasks that matter. Not to mention the satisfaction of crossing things off the list once I’m done.

However, the other day I came across something that changed the way I make my to-do lists. I saw a tweet by Jack Dorsey that explains how he stays organized with his list. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary to-do list. There are tasks like meditation, exercising, reading, and writing. Looks very similar to mine. And probably yours.

But then I saw something interesting. Under the to-do list, there was another list called “won’t do today.” It is easy to understand what it stands for. But why would he make a list of the things he won’t do?

As I started to think about it, the idea started to sound very smart and intriguing to me. Because even though I make daily “to-do” lists to stay focused and organized, I still get distracted by the thought of the things I could do:

Can I write one more article today?

Maybe I should start that project I‘m supposed to do tomorrow.

I should at least start thinking about the presentation that I will work on Wednesday.

Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to get things done that we forget we can only do so much in a day. But the more is not always the merrier.

When we determine only to-do goals for the day, we feel guilty about the things we didn’t do. However, the things you didn’t do affect your productivity and focus as much as the things you did do.

So we should start normalizing “doing enough” and stop worrying about the things we didn’t do. I think making a not-to-do list is a great way to start.

The first day

We will apply the golden rule of every habit here: start simple. When you make your first not-to-do list, only put the things that you wouldn’t do anyway. For example, my first not-to-do list was like this:

Wake up at 3 am.

Exercise for 4 hours.

Eat olives. (I hate olives)

This will be a fairly easy start and it will give you time to get used to this new adjustment. Although my first-day list was ridiculous, I still enjoyed checking it off. I’m sure you’ll too.

The second day

On the second day, again start by writing down the things that you weren’t going to do anyway. But this time, come up with things that you’re more likely to do. This was my second-day list:

Wake up at 10 am.

Start writing an article about art history.

Go for a run.

I was happy about checking off the first task because I woke up earlier than that but the other two got me thinking. It would actually be nice if I had written an article about art history and if I had gone running.

Then I realized this is a toxic mindset. Yes, of course, I could have done so many great things: I could have written 20 articles, started a non-profit, visited a new country.

But the fact that I could do all these things doesn’t necessarily mean I should be doing them. There are other priorities like my health, psychology, and personal goals that I need to consider before I decide on what to do for the day. And I won’t feel guilty about choosing what’s right for me.

If you feel a similar discomfort, you can extend the second-day list for a couple of days until you make your peace with it.

The third day

Now you are ready to really go for it. Write down the things that you are very likely to do but you planned to do them on another day. I usually put two tasks from the near future that are likely to concern me during the day.

I also find including one bad habit to the list quite helpful. It gives me a useful challenge for the day and it helps me observe how these types of habits affect my productivity. For example one of my typical not-to-do lists looks like this:

Exercise for one hour.

Start writing the article about LinkedIn.

Check your phone first thing in the morning.

This way I don’t feel guilty about not doing the things that I planned to do another day. These are the tasks that I determined for my day and I will not waste time worrying about the rest.

At the end of the day, we all want to take advantage of our limited time and productivity as much as we can. So we tend to obsess over what to do more. However, overdoing ends up causing more harm than good.

It’s important to understand that choosing to do something also means choosing not to do something else. So be mindful about both of your decisions.

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Merve Alsan

Written by

Former lawyer, current student, future marketer | Trying to figure out life, one curiosity at a time 🎡

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

Merve Alsan

Written by

Former lawyer, current student, future marketer | Trying to figure out life, one curiosity at a time 🎡

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

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