The importance of the Not-to-do List
If you’re like most people, you probably have a to-do list, and you use it to help you focus on getting things done. If you don’t have it, you might want to make one, as it brings plenty of psychological benefits. However, I would also suggest you create a not-to-do list. This list compliments the to-do list incredibly well, and it might be even more important. Let me explain. This is Mike. Mike loves video games and he plays them every day. But he also has an important exam coming up, which will determine his future, and he needs to study for it. So Mike puts studying on his to-do list. That day, Mike picks up the books and studies for half an hour. He then takes a short break, during which he decides to play some games. However, he got so into the game that he played it for the next 3 hours, and he didn’t do any additional studying afterwards. Sure, Mike managed to study for half an hour, so he did kind a accomplish the task on his to-do list. But that amount of studying is not enough for him to pass the exam. So the next day, Mike takes on the challenge of studying in a slightly different way.
He decides to create a not-to-do list as well. And what he wrote down was this: “No videogames until 7pm.” Mike goes to study, does it for half an hour, and then takes a break. However, he doesn’t go on his computer like the day before, because he prohibited himself from playing at that time. Instead he uses his break to drink a glass of water and to write down some of the thoughts that popped up during his study session. He then returns to studying and manages to do it for 3 whole hours on that day. Whenever you have a goal you want to achieve, it’s never enough to say: “I must do this.” But it should also include: “I must not do that.” What you want to do and what you shouldn’t do, are two sides of the same coin and go hand in hand. Let me give you another example: Let’s say you want to buy a particular product. And you know that this item can only be found at the store down the road. So you write it down on your to-do list. “Get that item from that store.” However, the road there is filled with other shops which don’t have the item you want.
You can stop at them along the way, and you are going to reach the store at the end of the road eventually. But what if you wrote down on your not-to-do list: “Don’t stop at the other shops.” You would get to the store down the road, much faster and more efficiently. The store at the end of the road is an analogy for whichever goal you have. And those other shops are distractions that will hinder your progress towards the goal. So if you want to get fit, you shouldn’t only exercise. But you probably want to avoid eating donut sand McDonalds as well. If you want to wake up early in the morning, you shouldn’t just set an alarm. You should also avoid any stimulating activities and bright lights before bed. And if you want to ace your next exam, you shouldn’t just study. But you should also avoid playing video games and watching Netflix. What you choose not to do, sometimes matters more than what you decide to do. By subtracting from one behavior, you’re actually adding to another one.
You’re creating an empty space that needs to get filled in some shape or form. And by limiting certain activities, you’re opening up an opportunity to fully focus on the area that’s most important. Now some might say that being limited is bad. And that having total freedom is the way to go. Sure, not everyone has the opportunity to freely choose when and how to do something. But there’s a downside that comes with having too much freedom of choice. When our friend Mike passed that exam and finished school, he became a freelance software developer. He’s now able to work from his laptop, whenever and wherever he wants. He can pick both the time and place. However, suddenly Mike has so much freedom that he’s actually paralyzed by it. Because he doesn’t have any restrictions, he keeps postponing his work. He’s always telling himself: “It’s fine I can always do this later.” And when later comes around, no work gets done, because Mike could always do it some other time. Because of that, he often feels guilty. There’s this constant thought on his mind that he should be working right now. And because of this guilt, he can’t even enjoy his free time.
When we’re free to do anything, we often end up doing nothing. Or we go for the easiest option we can pick. If you had to choose every single day between studying, working, watching TV or playing video games, which would you choose? You might do the right thing and choose to study and work at first. But as days go by, you’d eventually start picking TV and video games more and more. That’s because when you have the freedom to do so, you’ll choose the thing that doesn’t require as much effort. Now if you have limitations and you aren’t able to do whatever you feel like, choosing the more difficult option becomes much easier. You don’t have to use as much willpower to start working or studying, because those are your only two options. Plus you don’t have to resist any other activities that could tempt you. Mike soon realized that having no restrictions was the problem.
He was basically constantly choosing between work and free time. And because enjoying himself was the easier option, barely any work got done as a result. So Mike created a custom not-to-do list. And these were the limits he set for himself: “Only work from the home office.” “Never work past 7pm.” “No internet, tv or video games until 5pm.” You would think that these limits would frustrate Mike, because now he doesn’t have as much freedom as before. Yet they liberated him. He stopped constantly thinking about whether he should be working or not. Instead he now simply follows the rules he set for himself. If it’s 10 in the morning, Mike knows he can’t use the internet, watch TV or play video games. And because he doesn’t have much else to do, it’s easier for him to do his work. Now he doesn’t feel deprived of his free time either, because he knows he can still enjoy himself, just at a later time. And if it’s 8 in the evening, Mike doesn’t have to feel guilty for not working.
Instead, he’s able to enjoy his free time with a peace of mind. All thanks to his new restrictions. Now one thing I want to point out is that sometimes we shouldn’t just limit our “bad” behaviors, but our positive behaviors as well. For example, practicing the piano could be considered a good habit. But when you have other obligations, other things that are more important in the moment, then the piano is nothing more than a distraction. It’s no better than sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Both are taking away from the main thing you should be doing. This is why on certain occasions, you want to add some of your good habits to the not-to-do list as well. However there’s one thing that should never end up on your not-to-do list. And that is to learn something new every day. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you become better than yesterday.