I’m a big fan of a to-do list.
Almost every year I pick a new To-Do list app to try out, and spend enthusiastic hours moving all my tasks/projects/workflows across to it. And believe me, I’ve tried them all - Omnifocus, Wunderlist, Clear, Any.do, ToDoist … all the way through to my current favourite: Things 3. Not to mention the low-tech solutions of various journals, notebooks and post-it note arrays.
Each time I switch tools, I marvel at the new features and convince myself: this is it. This is the one true to-do system that will allow me to organise my life in a way in which David Allen himself would be proud.
But there are inherent problems.
For a start, to-do lists often serve to remind you of all the things you haven’t done. Not too helpful, that.
Secondly, writing a list doesn’t stop us being distracted. By all kinds of things - interesting people, questions, computer/phone notifications, random thoughts...and generally things that feel more exciting than the task at hand.
Eliminating some of these distractions helps, of course (see this piece from the blog archives on digital mindfulness). But I feel something more powerful is called-for.
Enter: the not-to-do list.
The not-to-do list is a short list, refreshed either once a month, week or day, to focus the mind on things you will definitely NOT do.
The concept originates from Charlie Munger (right hand of famed investor Warren Buffet), who was an advocate of ‘inversion’: looking at problems in a way that seeks to minimise the negatives rather than maximising the positives. In other words, how to create x by considering how to create the opposite of x.
An example of a personal not-to-do list might be:
1. No morning meetings this week.
2. Don’t agree to meetings without a clear agenda.
3. Don’t check emails more than twice a day.
And these lists are not just for us to use as individuals. They work for teams too. It can be helpful to have a discussion with your team about things that we know will distract us from our primary goals/vision, and formally agree not to spend time in these activities.
Why the not-to-do list works:
- It creates space in a way that to-do lists generally do not
- It creates commitment in a different way to standard goal setting
- It sharpens focus to motivate us in a specific direction
In the words of best-selling author Tim Ferriss: