you need a not-to-do list

If you have even the most rudimentary time management system, you probably have a to-do list. But you probably don’t have a not-to-do list, and that can be nearly as important in keeping you on track and ensuring that you’re spending your time in the places where it will pay off the most.

Often when you’re struggling to manage your time well, you may find that potential projects, tasks, and meetings keep popping up that aren’t high priorities for you, but which you say yes to anyway because you feel obligated, or you want to be nice, or it sounds like it could be a good idea. But if you let yourself say yes to everything, by definition you’ll be distracting yourself from the smaller number of items that you’ve decided are the most important.

Instead, since there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that might pop up on your radar, a better path is to make strategic decisions about where you are and – crucially – are not going to spend time. If you don’t make those decisions strategically, the items that don’t end up getting done are more likely to be accidents, rather than things you chose deliberately. Or you’ll simply be stretched too thin, giving short shrift to the things you want to prioritize.

Enter the not-to-do list. The not-to-do list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of things that you’ve decided that you will not spend time on. The idea is that by deliberately thinking that through and making specific commitments in this area, you’ll be more likely to say no to those wrong expenditures of time in the future.

To get started, think back on how you’ve spent your time in the last month. What things did you do that you weren’t a good use of your time? What items came up that have questionable value when it comes to achieving your goals? Write down the items that you think are worthy candidates for your not-to-do list.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t need to be an exhaustive list that details every idea you’ve ever had and discarded. If there’s no danger of being drawn into spending time on it now, it doesn’t need to go on the list. Instead, your not-to-do list should contain the things that you might be tempted to spend time on or that you’re sometimes asked to spend time on and which you’ve decided not to pursue.

These might be very specific tasks like “don’t respond to unsolicited sales calls” or “don’t review junior staff’s client communications unless they’re high-importance.” Or they might be about more general habits, like “don’t agree to meetings that don’t have a clear agenda” or “don’t check work email over the weekend.”

If you’re a manager, you might also come up with a not-to-do list for your team. For example, if you periodically get asked to have a booth at conferences and don’t think it’s a good use of your team’s time, that should go on the list. Or if you have deliberately deprioritized social media because you want your team’s focus to be on other priorities, put it on the list so that everyone is on the same page (and so that you all remember the decision the next time a staff member suggests live-Tweeting your strategy retreat).

The idea is that by thinking these items through, writing them down, and explicitly labeling them as “not to do,” you’re more likely to pause and reconsider before saying an automatic yes next time and to stay focused on what’s most important.

Of course, unless you’re senior enough to make these calls yourself, you may want to loop in your boss so that you can ensure that she agrees with you that it doesn’t make sense to spend your time on X or Y. If she disagrees, you’ll certainly want to know that before saying no to those projects, and that might prompt you to revisit your overall planning and figure out if there’s something else that you can jettison instead. And when you do get your manager’s backing, it’s likely to be even easier to stick to your not-to-do list in the future because you’ll be able to say no with the confidence of knowing your manager agrees with that decision.

{ 20 comments… read them below }

  1. KR*

    This is really an important concept as far as IT goes. We have to have rules on what we won’t support and what we won’t help people with. Otherwise, the tech questions eat up our time and we can’t get anything done.

    1. nofelix*

      Do you have any good canned responses for saying no?

      This is something I find difficult; Clients often start giving me instructions for services that aren’t included in our contract. In principal I just want to say “Yes of course we can do this. It’s not included in our appointment, so our standard hourly rate is X, is that okay? It’ll likely take around Y hours.”. But even this isn’t really okay because it will affect other work I have planned.

      1. KR*

        I’m an in-house IT person, so I don’t really have experience in that kind of setting. We draw the line at personal technology (aside from showing people how to add their work email to their phone or connect to the wifi) and we don’t support a few programs that some departments are determined to use even though we don’t recommend them. I think your script is great, and you could maybe say that they have to book a separate appointment because the work will take longer.

      2. Tau*

        Can you maybe add some sort of “and it will mean I’ll have to push back doing X for you/it’ll be at least Z weeks until it can be delivered because I don’t have a free slot for work until then” to that script?

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      We have to have rules on what we won’t support and what we won’t help people with.

      I’ve found that having these sorts of rules be enforceable depends entirely on whether the higher-ups will back you—whether that’s a CEO/President or Head of School/Principal/Executive Director.

      If your job is on the line, and they will fire and replace you with another CTO or Director of Tech for not supporting X, Y, and Z, then you will indeed support X, Y, and Z… or look for another job. I’ve seen it happen.

      1. KR*

        I completely agree that sometimes it really isn’t up to you. Thankfully, we’re in municipal government and the person in charge tends to trust my manager so we don’t run into those kinds of problems.

    3. Jimbo*

      We do the same and users FLIP THEIR LIDS when we say we won’t support something. “But you’re the IT department! That is outrageous!!” But we can’t support random programs you choose to use. It is simply not possible. One of our helpdesk analysts averages 100 calls/tickets per day. What would happen if we started spending two hours on a single ticket because one person out of 12,000 decided they prefer it to the program everyone else uses?

  2. Weekday Warrior*

    This is really important to clarify at an organizational level, which then allows individuals to develop a list to protect and focus their own time and attention.

  3. the gold digger*

    My husband is very good at informing me when something is out of scope, as in, when he was looking in the boxes in the basement for his electric shaver and I suggested that as long as he was digging through boxes anyhow, he might as well throw away his employee manual and earthquake guide from when he worked at Apple in 1992, he yelled, “NO! I can’t think about right now!”

    1. F.*

      You DO realize that those will be valuable collector’s items some day, just like all those baseball cards and early computer games that everyone’s mother threw out.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        When my parents packed up to move house we found about a dozen Apple stickers… circa 1982. Rainbow ones. They’re actually worth a few bucks on eBay now. I quite like them, though, so I’m hanging onto them for the moment.

          1. the gold digger*

            (And nope – Primo should not have thrown away his mom and dad’s porn. Until the AAM commenters, we had no idea there would be a market for vintage porn. He was just thinking that his nieces and nephews did not need to see it.)

            1. Is it spring yet?*

              Some one has to throw away some of this stuff for the rest to be worth anything.

              1. Mallory Janis Ian*

                Right? If everyone holds onto their stuff and keeps it in the package in mint condition waiting for it to become a collector’s item (as so many people seem to be doing with their stuff nowadays), then it will never be valuable. The stuff has to be scarce to be valuable.

  4. Beezus*

    I love this! I use the term “anti-priorities.” Here are some of mine:

    -I don’t start XYZ analysis work until the person requesting it has sent me all the required information (because half the time they don’t send me missing info later, and I waste my time starting an analysis I can’t complete.)
    -I never do XYZ analysis on a rush basis unless the person asking is a senior VP or above, because everyone wants theirs rushed, even when they don’t actually need the analysis (“can you rush it, it’s for a bid going out in the morning. no? oh well, it wasn’t a required part of the bid anyway, nevermind.”)
    -I don’t accept meetings from ABC team without a clear agenda, or for longer periods than one hour, because they will suck the time right out of my week and get nowhere in the process if I let them.
    -I don’t answer questions from ABC team in less than 30 minutes, because they tend to figure things out on their own after they ask (see above, re: time sucking)
    -I don’t spend time trying to improve processes that will be moot in less than a month (or longer, depending on how arduous improvement efforts would be), or that are only mine on an interim basis (unless the express purpose of my handling them temporarily is to improve them before handing off again.)
    etc. etc. etc.

    1. themmases*

      These are great. It’s so important to consider the source and the potential consequences when deciding if something is really a priority. Sometimes it’s not the activity that’s an anti-priority, but the project or the team.

      At an old job I de-prioritized updating two databases that I *knew* no one used (because I was the one who ran all the queries by request). But they were pet projects of their owners and no one would agree to just kill them. It was so freeing, not only to decide that I’d only update in response to requests that came at most a few times a year, but to stop seeing this as slacking or agree to be embarrassed just because someone else didn’t want to have to wait.

  5. Just Say No*

    This type of concept has been one I’ve struggled with for years, but am finally starting to get a handle on. I used to try to be a great team player and help with whatever was asked of me. But I’ve learned the hard way that I need to be more conscious of which things actually fall within my job description and my time should be spent on.

    I will often receive inquiries asking me to do XYZ because I know how to do it or can get it accomplished faster than the person whose job it is. I’ve learned to nicely push back and not take on more than I should in order to preserve my time for the tasks I should be doing without having to work extra hours. Just because I *can* do it doesn’t mean I *should* do it. Unless, of course, it’s the VP or CEO that’s asking.

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