Why You Need to Create a “To-NOT-Do” List

In my office right now, I have at least 3 separate To-Do lists. Three. And since I haven’t made the mental leap that it would take to organize all my to-do’s in the latest and greatest iPhone app (because I would greatly lament not being able to physically check off each task as I accomplish it), all of these lists are carefully hand-crafted on folded pieces of printer paper. When one list gets too long, I’ll organize it into multiple lists—each with their own theme. Or, currently, I have a “Master” to-do list with ALL of my tasks listed and also a daily to-do list in which those tasks are categorized by the day I strive to knock them out.

If you can’t visualize my intricate system of task management, don’t worry—it’s probably because it’s so complex, refined and terribly OCD, that you’re just not going to comprehend the awesomeness of it. But I’m actually not writing this to discuss how to craft a perfect to-do list, instead, I want to talk about the importance of a “To-NOT-Do” List.

I got this idea this past weekend when I attended the Start Conference in Nashville hosted by Jon Acuff—author of the books Quitter and Start. One of the guest speakers was Alli Worthington—founder of the Blissful Media Group. Alli talked about making a “stop-doing” list and (as someone who loves making lists) I immediately thought, “Brilliant!!”

Here’s the problem that entrepreneurs face—when a problem arises in business, we have a tendency to overload our to-do lists with MORE work to fix it (and typically the wrong kind of work).

create a not to do listFor example, when I launched this blog and traffic was slow, my first thought was to create more content for the blog—post more often, add a video series, put together a telesummit. My logic was that if I added even more value (i.e. worked even harder), then more people would find me. When I stepped back from the situation for a moment, this obviously became faulty logic. What I needed to focus on was marketing the blog, not tripling my content when I didn’t have an audience to read it.

We’ve all heard the saying that you have to “work smarter, not harder”, and that definitely applies in this case. In order to work smarter, take a minute to answer the following questions and write down the first thing that comes to mind…

  1. What task(s) in your business do you NOT like doing?
  2. What task(s) are sucking out your energy?
  3. What are your daily time-wasters? (e.g. Facebook, iPhone games, etc)
  4. What would it feel good to let go of?


Take your answers from these questions and create a not-to-do list. Populate the list with everything that is stealing away your energy or wasting your time—business-related or not. If it’s a critical task that has to be done for your business, find a way to have someone else take it over or outsource it.

Your job as a small business owner is to guard your energy and your time. These are your biggest assets. The truth is, you don’t have to work on every little thing in your business or your life (and you probably shouldn’t). If something is draining your energy, be smart about it. Instead of struggling through it week after week (or more likely, procrastinating on it), put it on your “To-NOT-Do” list and find another way to get it handled. Additionally, if something is sucking away your time (like Twitter or Pinterest), put that your To-NOT-Do List as well.

When a problem arises in your business, don’t just throw more work on top of the problem. Especially don’t throw the wrong kind of work on the problem. This doesn’t fix anything. You’ll just end up working 12+ hour days and never see your friends or family again. Make sure that the tasks on your to-do list are “smart” tasks—tasks that will grow your business and directly make you money. Then put the other stuff on the To-Not-Do list.

In the end, being “busy” doesn’t mean you’re being productive or even doing a good job. Instead of fiddling around with your time, use these two lists to find your own method for working smarter and doing less so you can accomplish more.

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Paul - 5 years ago

Great message Laurel!

I seem to live on my To Do list, but this whole idea of a “To NOT Do” list is pretty new to me. Thanks for your thoughts on this because I know it’s still something I need to wrap my mind around. So I’m going to do this right now… thanks!

    Laurel Staples - 5 years ago

    Hi Paul! Thanks for your comment. I love the “To NOT Do” list idea because it helps me stay focused on what’s important. One of my big to-not-do’s is to check my email before I get done with my morning writing. Otherwise, I just get swallowed up in a sea of messages and don’t start my day in a productive manner. Glad you liked the post!

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