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To-Don’t List: An easy method to improve your productivity

4 min read

One of the best ways to improve our performance is to subtract, not add.

Electronic manufacturers in Japan did this in the 1970s to improve their products.

In an article titled "Better All the Time", James Surowiecki writes:

"Japanese firms emphasized what came to be known as 'lean production,' relentlessly looking to remove waste of all kinds from the production process, down to redesigning workspaces, so workers didn't have to waste time twisting and turning to reach their tools. The result was that Japanese factories were more efficient, and Japanese products were more reliable than American ones. In 1974, service calls for American-made color televisions were five times as common as for Japanese televisions. By 1979, it took American workers three times as long to assemble their sets."

James Clear calls this addition by subtraction. By subtracting every point of friction in the manufacturing process, the quality of the products increased.

Similarly, when we remove things from our lives that sap our time and energy, we can get more done with less effort. In fact, it is easier and more practical to removing things instead of doing more.

Here are some examples of how subtracting can improve our performance:

  • Tennis: Making fewer unforced errors instead of hitting winners
  • Working out: Miss fewer workouts instead of increasing workout intensity
  • Diet: Eat fewer unhealthy food instead of eating more healthy food
  • Wealth: Save more instead of earning more

Isn't it easier to subtract than to add?

Adding new things to your life takes a lot of motivation and willpower. Not doing something is much simpler.

We can apply this concept to our productivity by using to-don't lists.

What Is a To-don't List?

A to-don't list is a list of things you DON'T do. Write down things that will prevent you from doing your work, and cross them off as you go along.

It might consist of things such as checking your phone while working, browsing Twitter during work sessions, and checking email all the time.

Why You Should Use a To-don't List

A to-don't list is easier and more effective than to-do lists for increasing your productivity. What you don't do determines what you do.

  • If you don't waste time on Twitter, you'll have more time to read
  • If you don't check your phone when working, you'll be more focused and get more done
  • If you don't drink coffee late at night, you'll have a better sleep

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb argues that the solution to many problems in life is by removing things, not adding things. This is called via negativa. Why don't we apply via negativa for our productivity?

It's essential to write down your to-don't list. Similar to how writing down your to-do list makes it more likely to happen, writing down a to-don't list makes it more likely not to happen.

How to use a To-don't List

Before starting some work, I write down my to-don't list on a sticky pad. It usually includes:

  • Don't stay all day indoors
  • Don't waste time on the Internet (Twitter, YouTube, Netflix)
  • Don't be confused about your tasks
  • Don't delay work to night time
  • Don't check email and texts first thing in the morning
  • Don't have your phone near you when you're working

I keep this stick pad near my workspace at all times as a reminder. As I go along with my day, I cross things off the list.

As most of my work sessions are on Focusmate, I also write down what I don't want to do during that 50 minutes. If I'm studying, that could include:

  • Don't check your phone for texts.
  • Don't browse distracting websites like Twitter, YouTube
  • Don't work in a noisy and distracting environment

After the session ends, I cross off what I didn’t do. Writing it down and having to cross it off at the end of the session deters me from doing it.

Like to-do lists, be specific with your to-don't list. "Don't waste time" is too broad. "Don't waste time on Twitter" is more precise and clear.

To make sure you stick with your to-don't list, you can also do one time actions that prevent you from doing it in the first place.

  • If your to-don't list is not to play video games, unplug your console and keep it in the cupboard.
  • If you don't want to check your phone, leave it in another room or leave it at home.
  • If you don't want to waste time on the Internet, use website blockers like Freedom and StayFocusd.

Add friction to stop yourself from doing these tasks.

Lowest Hanging Fruit

Having a to-don't list is the lowest hanging fruit of improving your productivity. It's easy, practical, and simpler than adding more tasks to your to-do list.

Everyone talks about getting things done, but that is only possible when we're not distracted by other things. Not doing some things will make it easier to do the things you want to do.

Take some time to think of a few things you don't value that take up your time, and commit to not doing it.



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