Why you need to create a To Don’t List


What you don’t do can have a big impact on what you actually get done in a day.
Coffee cup, pen and reading glasses sit alongside a notebook with a heading reading priorities
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To-do lists are considered very sexy in productivity circles (I personally find them incredibly attractive). I have a to-do list for work, for home, for shopping, for new restaurants to try, and even for books and podcasts that I want to consume. But here’s the thing: none of us, even the highly efficient, will ever get to the end of our to-do list. We are constantly adding to them. Yet given time is a finite resource, perhaps it’s time we started writing a list of things we don’t want to do?

Rachel Botsman is a renowned expert on trust and technology and a Trust Fellow at Oxford University. Prior to the pandemic, Botsman had written an annual to-don’t list for several years. The purpose of this list had been to reflect on habits she wanted to break or things she wanted to do differently. But during her first Covid lockdown, she took this ritual and made it monthly.

“I think the trigger was not travelling and realising how much I didn’t want to go back to it,” Botsman explains. “So much of our lives are programmed to add tasks and commitments – we’re not taught how to subtract.”

She felt as though her work was constantly about adding tasks and responsibilities. To counter this feeling of the never-ending list of things to do, she diarises an appointment with herself on the last Friday of every month where she sets aside time to consider what she wants to stop doing in her work.

“I give myself a full hour to think about it and reflect on the last month’s list. What did I keep? What did I find hard? Why? What is a pattern I can’t break?”

While there aren’t specific categories she thinks about in relation to what she wants to not do, she does think about her energy. During her meeting with herself, she reflects on how she spends her time, who she spends it with, and what she wants to focus on – and more importantly, not focus on.

Some examples of items that have made Botsman’s to-don’t list include:

  • Don’t work with clients whose intentions/motives are not aligned with yours
  • Don’t undervalue things you find super easy
  • Don’t schedule meetings between 8am and 11am
  • Don’t scroll through social media after 7pm
  • Don’t bend to other people’s agendas
  • Don’t see X person, period (!)
  • Don’t do ‘favours’ because you feel bad

For Botsman, the process has been immensely beneficial in helping her be more mindful about where she puts her energy and helps her think about old things in new ways. Through avoiding the temptation to constantly add things to her plate, it’s also helped her stay focused on the work that matters to her most.

To take a leaf out of Botsman’s books and create your own to-don’t list, diarise a meeting with yourself once a month. Label it your ‘To-Don’t’ meeting.

When the meeting rolls around, reflect on the month that has just gone and ask yourself what de-energised or deflated you most during this period in both your personal and professional life. You might consider daily habits (such as checking social media), people you saw (who perhaps felt like human Dementors, sucking the life out of you), or things you said ‘yes’ to but later regretted.

Create a list of things you will not do the following month. Keep this list in eyesight of your desk to act as a constant reminder. In subsequent months, review how you went sticking to your to-don’t list, what served you and what didn’t. Add or subtract items based on your reflections of what and who sucked up your energy and could thus benefit from being removed from the following month.

While I am still a huge advocate of to-do lists, my own monthly to-don’t list meeting has helped to reduce activities in my life that leave me deflated and has freed up time to focus on what brings me most joy.

Dr Amantha Imber is the author of Time Wise, the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.