I used to be a chronic maker of to-do lists. My lists lived on little scraps of paper, the back on envelopes, and Post-It notes. I would buy planners and fill them up with timely tasks and then never follow through.
Needless to say, when I didn’t always get around to taking care of business, I’d be disappointed in myself. Leftover tasks would pile up like dishes in the sink… which was especially problematic if “do the dishes” was on a to-do list.
Worse yet, I would swear off to-do lists entirely, only to return to them again and again.
Why to-do lists failed me
Part of the problem is that my expectations were unreasonable. A long, rigid list of tasks meant that if something else came up or if I didn’t feel up to it, I wouldn’t finish what I had sworn to do and would feel an immense sense of letdown.
Earlier this year, for example, I committed to being healthier and decided I’d plan out everything I would eat the following day. And what a mistake that was! Boxes of cupcakes arrived for a co-worker’s birthday or friends would call for impromptu drinks or dinners out and ruin my plans. Sometimes, I just wanted that decadent egg sandwich for breakfast on the way to work instead of the yogurt and granola I’d pledged to eat. I added exercise to my to-do lists and felt miserable if I failed to make it to the gym that day.
Setbacks begot more setbacks; I needed a system that was more flexible and forgiving.
How “not to-do” lists works
Rather than continue my course of endless disappointment, I decided to set a few basic ground rules that would help me be happier and more productive. And so I wrote my first “not to-do” list.
The goal was to eliminate obstacles rather than introducing more expectations. And it completely changed my life.
What should go on a “not to-do” list?
We all have particular habits that set us on a bad course. That’s where a “not to-do” list comes in. After Tim Ferriss felt his email habits were getting out of control, he pledged to stop obsessively monitoring his inbox all day and now checks his email in batches instead. To regain his sanity and sleep, he also committed to not send any emails in the early morning or late evening.
Taking this lead, I ended my impulsive breakfast sandwich habit by swearing off eggs during the workweek. Whenever I’d get a craving, I resolved myself to wait, reminding myself that I had big Eggs Benedict plans coming up. By delaying the gratification, I felt like I was truly rewarding myself when the weekend finally arrived.
My weekday evenings were another blackhole. I would get home, plop down on the couch, fire up Netflix or a video game, and then look up and realize it was midnight and I needed to get to bed. And so I committed myself to not to turn on the television or use the internet for the first 90 minutes after work.
As a result, getting home suddenly meant that I might read the magazines that always piled up on my counter, take care of a few lingering chores, or even trot off to the gym. Some nights, I wouldn’t turn on the TV at all. I started using that time to make lunch for the following day instead of waiting until the next morning and then running out of time. And now, my morning routine was a little less hectic and I could focus more on the day ahead.
Without realizing it, I had used “not to-do” lists to become an active procrastinator and lead a less frantic life. More importantly, I found peace in the realization that I was never going to be a to-do list person, which was something I was more than happy to cross out of my life.
Isaac Belmont is an editor, news producer, writer, and ghostwriter based in Queens, New York.
Tips to help you keep it real
Bust through obstacles on your way to greatness with Unstuck Tip Cards — four reusable decks that help you fight procrastination, stop negative thinking, boost productivity, and get more creative.
(Top image via Flickr/Polkadotcreations)