Here's why you should be making a not-to-do list.

You need to make a not-to-do list: Here’s why.

Sometimes it seems like the key to becoming more productive is creating a detailed to-do-list – especially when the number of ‘to-dos’ seems to keep growing. But what if we told you the key to productivity has less to do with addition and more to do with subtraction?

It’s not uncommon for Australian workers to wake up feeling overwhelmed. The mere thought of all that needs to be accomplished in a given day is draining. Research from the Australian Institute found that nearly two in five Australians felt that their work had a negative impact on their stress levels, another third felt that their work had a negative impact on sleep.

It’s unsurprising that so many of us feel this way. The lines between our personal and professional lives are more blurred than ever. We get chats from co-workers on our personal phones, we check our emails on weekends – we never quite shut off.

We complain about the complexity of our lives, but we also forget how much of the chaos in our lives is self-imposed. At some point, you agreed to take on all those things.

Letting go of tasks demands mindfulness. It requires new ways of thinking and focused action. You can mindlessly add on to that to-do list, but you really have to sit down and think about what goes on your not-to-do list.

Saying ‘no’ is the key to being more productive

Warren Buffett once said: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

Of course, saying “no” isn’t easy. We don’t want to let people down and we definitely don’t want to look like slackers.

On top of that, it’s not always easy to figure out what really deserves your attention. The key to this is having a good filter to sort through the options. Fortunately, when you put your mind to it, you can do this filtering pretty easily.

For each task or to-do list item (or for any activity that’s eating into your productivity) consider the following questions:

Analytical questions:

  • What does this achieve, or what problem does it solve?
  • Is it a problem that needs solving?
  • Is the outcome worth the time and mental energy I’m putting into it?
  • Am I really adding value?

Tip: When you’re more conscious of value, you’ll be better positioned to notice when enough is truly enough!

People questions:

  • Who will benefit (or not) if I do this (or don’t)?
  • Is there someone besides me who could (or should) be doing this?
  • Who could help or support me in re-prioritising or re-allocating my time?
  • What interactions are draining me?

Tip: Pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day and make note of the interactions that drain you the most. Take the initiative to ask the parties involved how you might engage in a more effective way.

Organisational questions:

  • How could I be more efficient in getting this done?
  • Are there different tools that would make this process faster/easier/cheaper/better?
  • Have I been prioritising the most important tasks first?
  • Am I filling the time just because that’s what I’ve allotted for it?

Tip: Think about meetings that are auto-scheduled for an hour. Is that much time always necessary?

Big picture questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What would happen if I didn’t do it?
  • What would be possible for me if I didn’t have to do this?
  • How would it feel to have that added space on my calendar?

Tip: Try visualising a life where your weekends are largely unscheduled and you leave your office by 6pm at the latest on a work day.

Once you’ve done some subtraction, you can focus on your real to-do list.

Keep a master list of the next three things you intend to do. A three-item list is doable and inviting – you’ll even get a dopamine-driven sense of reward every time you cross off those tasks.

It’s all about consciously choosing and subtracting. Think of these productivity hacks as your personal Control Z key for undoing the habits that are getting in the way of your productivity and cluttering up your brain.

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