You Need a “Not To-Do” List

We all intuitively know that we need some sort of list that reminds us of what we need to do. But as Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”  That’s why you might need a “not to do” list.

As you prune your list of things to accomplish, you might have to scrap five or ten items that may have seemed important at one time but no longer deserve your attention. When Jobs returned to Apple after a time away, he discovered more than 300 projects underway. He killed all but four. He wanted to make sure that the focus was doing each of those four projects well. Maybe we should too.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Allison Rimm, a management consultant, and executive coach writes in the Harvard Business Review: “Once you accept that you have more to do than time to do it all, that is a liberating concept. This realization forces you to acknowledge there are lower priority items that you will likely never complete. Delete those non-essentials, put them on your not-to-do list, and commit to letting them go. This will prevent you from wasting precious time continually re-evaluating whether you might get to them that could be better invested in actually completing your work.”

When you sit down to review your list of possible projects, weigh them against your long-term goals. If you run a restaurant, you want to make sure that you have fresh food. If your Board of Directors has established strategic goals, you should ask yourself if the items on your task list will help you achieve that goal.  The only exception to judging a potential task against goals is if your boss gives you a direct order.

Of course, this means you also need to be clear about your goals and the action items you will need to do to achieve the larger goals. Clarity and simplification are the keys.

Another trick to look for items that can move to your “not-to-do list” is those that are recurring. Consider whether those reports you prepare every month are that important. You will be surprised that some essential things from a year or more ago may no longer be needed.

Anything you can do to view your potential tasks with an eye towards what is essential will make you more productive and probably allow you to do better work on the things that hold your attention.


Do you think you need to jump-start your productivity system? I can help. Check out my course, “Productivity and Time Management.” It will save you time and renew your energy at work and at home.

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