Keeping a ‘Not To Do’ List

Here’s a possible paradigm-shifting idea: what if the very idea of a to-do list is flawed?

Think about it… a to-do list can never be complete. New things are coming at us every second. And the very idea of a list means that there will be lesser important things subtly distracting us from the more important things.

Conversely, having urgent things on a list means that lesser important items are rarely started – always more important things bump them down the line.

Our various to-do systems try to deal with these (and other) failings. But perhaps the to-do system is simply too broken to repair?

Consider then, for a minute, the idea of a not to do list.

Unlike a traditional to-do list, this list would be by its very nature quite ‘up to date’. A list of what not to do would contain the most dumb things we regularly do (and so often that we need to make a note of them).

This concept works with how we learn things anyway – by making mistakes and learning what not to do, rather than what we have done right and should do in the future.

A third thing in its favor: ancient lists – like the Ten Commandments or Buddhist precepts – are much more likely to be written as ‘not to do lists’, than a list of things to check off and ‘do’. Our laws are the same, usually things that are illegal.

These sorts of lists have survived because they work and keep working.

Here’s how to set up a personal Not-To-Do

This system uses

  • Any form of writing, that you can keep with you and refer to easily throughout your day.


One of the biggest proponents of a Not To Do List is Tim Ferriss, he of the four hour workweek. He clearly stated how to set up your own list in a blog post – worth a read.

Michael Hyatt listed the following in his personal no-to-do list list:

  1. Review book proposals or manuscripts for possible publication
  2. Write deal memos
  3. Negotiate contracts with agents or authors
  4. Meet prospective new authors unless they have significant brand potential
  5. Attend publishing meetings unless the topic is vision or strategy
  6. Write marketing plans
  7. Travel by car to other cities unless they are less than one hour a way
  8. Check my own voice mail
  9. Read unfiltered e-mail
  10. Answer my own phone
  11. Respond to (or feel the need to respond to) unsolicited sales pitches or proposals of any kind
  12. Attend process review meetings unless there’s a compelling reason for me to be there
  13. Attend trade shows for more than two days
  14. Serve as a director on more than two outside boards

Use other people’s lists as guides only. Ultimately what you chose to put in (to leave out!) will be uniquely suited to your own past history and personality.


  • This method gets to the core of what gets in your way of true productivity (at the roots, if you will).


  • Realistically cannot be used in place of reminders to do important tasks.


  • Try using this in conjunction with your usual to-do list.

Our Rating

Not for everyone, but perhaps a keeper.

Your Thoughts

Have you tried this system? What are your experiences working with it? Any pros, cons, variations, or tips?

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