The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now

Blissful doggy smiling with eyes closed and paws raised.

This is how the world felt before Crackberries. (LeoLuigi)

“Not-to-do” lists are often more effective than to-do lists for upgrading performance.

The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.

Here are nine stressful and common habits that entrepreneurs and office workers should strive to eliminate. The bullets are followed by more detailed descriptions. Focus on one or two at a time, just as you would with high-priority to-do items. I’ve worded them in no-to-do action form:

1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers

Feel free to surprise others, but don’t be surprised. It just results in unwanted interruption and poor negotiating position. Let it go to voicemail, and consider using a service like GrandCentral (you can listen to people leaving voicemail) or Simulscribe (receive voicemails as e-mail).

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night

The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia. E-mail can wait until 10am, after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items…

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time

If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”

4. Do not let people ramble

Forget “how’s it going?” when someone calls you. Stick with “what’s up?” or “I’m in the middle of getting something out, but what’s going on?” A big part of GTD is GTP — Getting To the Point.

5. Do not check e-mail constantly — “batch” and check at set times only

I belabor this point enough. Get off the cocaine pellet dispenser and focus on execution of your top to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies. Set up a strategic autoresponder and check twice or thrice daily.

6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers

There is no sure path to success, but the surest path to failure is trying to please everyone. Do an 80/20 analysis of your customer base in two ways–which 20% are producing 80%+ of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80%+ of my time? Then put the loudest and least productive on autopilot by citing a change in company policies. Send them an e-mail with new rules as bullet points: number of permissible phone calls, e-mail response time, minimum orders, etc. Offer to point them to another provider if they can’t conform to the new policies.

7. Do not work more to fix overwhelm — prioritize

If you don’t prioritize, everything seems urgent and important. If you define the single most important task for each day, almost nothing seems urgent or important. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of letting little bad things happen (return a phone call late and apologize, pay a small late fee, lose an unreasonable customer, etc.) to get the big important things done. The answer to overwhelm is not spinning more plates — or doing more — it’s defining the few things that can really fundamentally change your business and life.

8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7

Take at least one day off of digital leashes per week. Turn them off or, better still, leave them in the garage or in the car. I do this on at least Saturday, and I recommend you leave the phone at home if you go out for dinner. So what if you return a phone call an hour later or the next morning? As one reader put it to a miffed co-worker who worked 24/7 and expected the same: “I’m not the president of the US. No one should need me at 8pm at night. OK, you didn’t get a hold of me. But what bad happened?” The answer? Nothing.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.” Review Parkinson’s Law in The 4-Hour Workweek and force yourself to cram within tight hours so your per-hour productivity doesn’t fall through the floor. Focus, get the critical few done, and get out. E-mailing all weekend is no way to spend the little time you have on this planet.

It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing. Different means, same end.

What other no-no’s would you add to the list?

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The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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371 Replies to “The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now”

  1. Template every thing you can. Any email you have to send more than twice with the same response create a template.

    Use a program like A-Text to create canned responses or added lines that are assigned to hot keys.

    Automate social media postings with things like Buffer. All my posts are queued a week to two weeks in advance. I supplement as relevant but the key marketing and PR and event type postings are scheduled.

    Digitize everything so that no matter where you are in the world you have access to it. I digitized my signature so that I can just drop it in a form. No more scanning, signing, re-scanning mess and no use of paper!

    Just a few of the things I have done to make things more efficient in my work life.

    scott

  2. Love this concept of the Not-To-Do List. I am so guilty of thinking I have to be there 24/7 for everyone and so frustrated with not accomplishing the work I know should be my top priority. Will be checking into the email auto response for sure. Thank you!!

  3. Thank you for another jewel of information Tim. I am presently studying much of the information you are providing and hope to some day be able to contribute. (Please note I did meditate, did a brief work out, and nourished my self this morning before turning on this computer). 🙂

  4. Everything is negotiable even timelines. When someone proposes a deadline thsts all it is a proposal. I learned to counter with a more realistic timeline and if I’m not going to hit they I call/email and let them know if it’s slipped and when I will be hitting it (still a negotiation). I found I was running just to run and when I hit impossible deadlines …nobody cares. So I started making sure they weren’t arbitrary deadlines and it’s made me less stressed.

  5. I don’t particularly agree with number 4. It makes you unapproachable. There is nothing wrong with 30 seconds or a minute of ‘how are you doing’ to ‘bond’ and set the tone for the call so that the person you are talking to is left with a good feeling. It could help you down the road.

  6. Stop living in the past, don’t be anxious about things that haven’t happened (yet, if at all ever will). Focus on the now with your goals in mind.

    Mindfulness is underrated.

  7. one thing I don’t do is continually put the little stuff off. A person can decide not to do something so many times they could have done it in the time they took to put it off. Once every few weeks I put my whole desk in one stack a complete each thing when I get to it w/o making judgement.

  8. This is amazing advice. TYVM for posting this. I would add: “Don’t keep a messy desk. Keep it neat & organized and you’ll save time trying to find things. It will also lessen your stress to not be surrounded by clutter.” This is one that soo works for me.

  9. I’d like to add one more “do not” – Do Not give up. Life can bring so many hurdles into the way be it from family, friends or even work itself. However, if what you are doing is really that important to either you or the cause at hand then do not give up. Stay focused. Maintain your mission. You will succeed. Failure only happens when you fail to keep moving forward.

  10. Reminds of a beautiful quote from the book I Am That: “to work in the world is hard, and to refrain from all unnecessary work is even harder.” Sounds like your kind of mentality.

  11. I would add this to the list: Do not allow yourself to become utterly distracted or pulled off course by a relationship that is in frequent desperate need of repair. It can be gut-wrenching when things get really rocky with someone you dreamed of sharing life with, for example. But tons of time and energy spent working on a relationship means tons of time and energy not spent working toward all your other dreams. Tough.

  12. Unknown callers often have a name and money. I’d call them potential new customers. I get the gist, but would argue that voicemail is for job owners. Business owners want their company phones answered. By a human. That speaks English (or whatever the expected language is), is nice and can help the caller solve the problem they called you to solve. People like to talk to humans, that is why they called, right?

  13. Hey Tim, it would be very much appreciated if you could update the services and links in this post. Many are dead links 🙁 I know you don’t need to worry about SEO anymore since you have made it, and 10 years ago you were probably still “faking it” LOL.

    Love you!

  14. There are so many people who get energetically enslaved and distracted by what they feel is an obligation or responsibility they have to follow through on when really its just a life distraction and energy robber. There is the cultural fear of not being on-top of things, not being the best, not being in”the know”….when really knowledge, true understanding, and clarity come from silence and inward reflection.

  15. Do not take your phone into a meeting. It can distract you and others in the meeting. Too often I’m in a team meeting and somebody is gazing down at their mobile. It can wait, even if it’s work related email. Give the meeting your undivided attention.

  16. Tim – always a good read. I personally struggle spending major time – on minor things (great Jim Rohn quote) Especially with people. Letting people ramble and ramble and me, not being able to politely move them along.

  17. I would add that if you found this on facebook youre spending to muchtime on facebook follow the email rule with facebook and i wiuld also add commenting on random lists you found on facebook as 2 minutes of your time better spent elsewhere

  18. I wish the cell phone thing was on EVERYONE”S not to do list. My fiance and I find it sad when we go to a restaurant and other people spend an entire meal on their phones. Really? You can’t spend a few minutes communicating with the person you are with?

  19. Don’t carry your cell phone everywhere. Agree 100%. It feels great to leave it at home.

    I grew up without a cell phone. Why do I “need” one now. I don’t, really.

  20. love this article. It’s easier when focus in what’s not to do. I just use procrastination I used have when it’s come to what to do to apply to what’s not to do. It’s fun.

  21. I’ve eliminated e-mail from my phone so that I only check it on the computer when I can respond with proper vocabulary/punctuation/personality and it saves me thinking about e-mails without time to properly respond

  22. A bad habit in advance warning. Just because marijuana is increasingly more legal, does not mean you can still perform at your best no matter how creative you think it makes you. Discipline in advance please. Work maybe play at its best, but not all play belongs at work! ATG

  23. I would love to hear how these tips might be modified for a service entrepreneur. I’m in IT support. Clients email and phone at all times of the day (and sometimes night, too), and limiting my email to certain hours of the day means I make someone angry because I didn’t answer quickly enough. I just bought ToT, so I’m hoping some tips are in there, but anyone else is welcome to comment.

  24. I would recommend something that I have heard on a few of your podcasts, which is: Don’t try to do EVERYTHING yourself. Let go a little and delegate wherever possible. Hire people as soon as you can afford to and have them deal with some of these time consuming calls and emails, so that you can focus your time and energy where it is most useful for the business.

    Sadly, we do have to provide 24/7 customer support, so am never without the phone. Hopefully soon we’ll have the budget to hire a call center.

  25. I actually implemented all of these suggestions and the result is great. I do not answer emails until 11 am. I batch all of my phone and email activities twice a day. No one has been upset about it. My clients do not call me after 6 pm anymore because I don’t answer. This is ground breaking for me because I used to go to the bathroom with my phone. I was afraid that I will lose business. It didn’t happen and clients learned to respect my time.

  26. I would add, take a defined breather every day. It’s ok to work your butt off, but stepping away for a 15 minute clip to take a walk or remove yourself from the workspace only helps to clear the mind and refocus. One or two a day does the trick!!

  27. 10. Spend time watching or listening to any of the news media. I blocked it off all of my devices and it feels great. The key though is all sources must go. If someone, including family or friends post a news story or “current event” I block them. In my life I have not learned a single valuable lesson from news or gossip. If I am interested in something I will find it.

  28. Great list! Here’s another one- do not let your thoughts get stuck in the groove called: the unresolved issues of your life- e.g. betrayals, abandonment, outcome of the most recent presidential election, negative self-talk. Maintain brief morning, midday, afternoon and evening routines that include meditation, intention-setting and affirmations. Build a tool box of effective strategies to redirect the thoughts when they do creep up: one-line affirmations, changing what you are doing, reaching out to someone else to see how they are doing- and keep venting to a minimum! Grieving of deep loss aside, guard your heart and mind with all your might.

  29. Don’t watch sport. Especially not on TV. Simple. Hours of meaningless and banal conversation avoided. : )

  30. Hey Tim,

    Its so great reading what you think and gives an altogether different perspective.

    Love your views and your books and videos

    All the stuff out there is damn cool and inspiring

    Thank you for doing what you are doing