Hackernoon logoAccomplish More by Doing Less with Not-To-Do Lists This Year by@z3nch4n

Accomplish More by Doing Less with Not-To-Do Lists This Year

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Zen Chan Hacker Noon profile picture

@z3nch4nZen Chan

Interested in Infosec & Biohacking. Security Architect by profession. Love reading and running.

“If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another.”

— Deepak Chopra

At the end of every year, we make new year goals and review what we achieved this year. I used to be one to make powerful, positive, and good new year resolutions. But this year, I choose not to.

I use the Not-To-Do list every day which can help me, and possibly everyone, to focus on the right things and save hours from the “time-stealers”.

Different Kinds of To-Do lists

A temporal To-Do list is a great tool to offload our busy minds and prevent us from being distracted. Before going to the supermarket, we have a shopping list, a To-Do list on a Post-it to remind us to call the customer. It is a type of list as a reminder and can be thrown away afterward.

If you keep a To-Do list as a “wish list,” which means you write down your dream on a list so that you can finish them one by one. That is great as you can visualize what you really want in words. A dream list can then be broken down into several To-Do Lists, with actual actions so that you can follow.

Another type of To-Do list is what I use in the morning to kick start the day could help me focus on the important things. I use it in the form of a 5-Minute Journal. I would remove the item once I finished a task. This gives me a feeling of little success and pushes me to go through another item on the list.

Limited Time vs. Unlimited Goals

Getting things done is visible and countable as the achievements of our day. But what if we are doing the things that are not contributing to our life? This is why I always remind myself of the difference between “To do something right” and “To do the right thing.”

If you want to read books to understand a topic you like, you better choose the material from a trustworthy author. You can read 1000 words per minute, but you are still wasting your time if the content is unrelated.

You can be very efficient in browsing Facebook. But it will not help you to finish the work unless your work is watching what others posting. To do one thing, you sacrifice all other things.

Using our time wisely on the things that truly matters is key.

Instead of adding more things we want to do on the list, why not pick the Must-Do from the To-Do list? That is when the NTD list can help.

What is a Not-To-Do (NTD) List?

It is the opposite of the To-Do List. While you would write down the things you are doing to complete on a To-Do, the Not-To-Do list is more like a banned list of actions/ tasks that should be avoided completely or during your task.

The NTD list is the baseline, a boundary that I cannot cross if I am really trying to be productive. It can also be a set of rules for you to say no to the “useless” tasks. Having the NTD list is like putting stop signs on the side-tracks to keep you from a detour on the road.

Human Brain Hates Incomplete Tasks — The Zeigarnik Effect

This phenomenon was first published in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. She observed that restaurant waiters seemed to memorize a complicated order only before the order was prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

The Zeigarnik Effect can be explained as a desire to complete a task that can cause it to be retained in a person’s memory until it has been completed. The finality of its finish facilitates the process of forgetting it to take place.

By not completing a task, we retain the memory of an unfinished task in our minds.

The New York Times Bestseller book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” provided us with an insight into how we can stop our unconscious mind from the “nagging tasks”:

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done…
Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

We can leverage the NTD list and what mentioned in “Willpower” to create a perfect tool for emptying our minds and enhance our productivity. As a result, we can focus our effort on meaningful works.

How to create an NTD list

The following steps can help you to create your own NTD list. But do not limit by what I mentioned here. The key to the NTD list should be based on your goal. Someone may find recurring tasks helpful for refreshing their mind, but for me, it is distractions.

Find out what keeps coming up during the day.

Bad repetitive behavior should be most avoided. Things like checking your phone too often, browsing social media for too long are typical examples. Find those out that are not helpful and recurring.

Find out what on the To-Do list for a long time.

If you have a task hanging on your To-Do list for too long, that means either you do not want to do it or are procrastinating for some reason. You can then further understand what blocks you from doing it or get rid of this kind of task so that you can zero your To-Do list.

Find out what sucks your mental energy.

I'm not too fond of the message notifications when reading on Medium. It takes a little bit of my mental power to ignore the messages or put my mind back to the article after glancing at the popup. Therefore I mute my phone every time I read on my phone or use my tablet for reading without any IM.

Be more specific on the task.

As mentioned in “Willpower,” the best method to free our mind from the nagging task is specific. The details are the key to a good NTD item. You can then create a “template” for your items to fill. Below are my examples:

  • Do not ___________ which ___________
  • Do not ___________ if ___________
  • Do not ___________ when/ after/ during ___________
  • Do not ___________ where ___________

My NTD List

Let me show you some of my NTD lists as a reference. It helps me mostly for work, and I also teach my colleagues to create their own and share so that we all know the common ground and the taboos.

  • Do not go to a meeting if I do not know the reason.
  • Do not work during lunch.
  • Do not vent without context, which does not have any positive impact.
  • Do not eat after dinner.
  • Do not check my phone when dating.
  • Do not give a presentation without an objective.

As you can see, I have a rule not to go to a meeting without reason. My colleagues were having a hard time sometimes when they really need some technical help from my team. But what do you think after a while?

They all now have a reason (sometimes is excuses) for my team to follow. Having a reason to work is all I need. I need the why all the time from work as it is the foundation of good output. Once you can get the idea, you will discover how many hours were wasted in the past on things that can be avoided.

What to do about the tasks I cannot do?

Keep saying no may sometimes bring you a hard time at work as coworkers may not understand the reason for your NTD list but think you are unhelpful. The below could be a way out for you to keep saying no while not leaving the task unattended.

1# Remove it, simple and clear

Sometimes you can remove the task completely and never see it again. I stop using Facebook and save all time scrolling on new updates on reading/ listening to audiobooks.

2# Offload/ Delegate

It is also another choice and if you are working in a team, try to coordinate with colleagues so that everyone can work on the tasks they are good at, not duplicating the efforts by a silo-working style.

3# Outsource

We do it all the time, like outsourcing housekeeping, coding… With the internet, we can now amplify this to different parts of the world and keep everyone happy. Try to review the time vs. cost of repeating tasks to see if there is an alternative.

Final Words: Life is the sum of a series of decisions and judgments.

Imagine you sleep for only four hours. Still, you can wake up the other morning at six. Why? Because you have an important meeting and need to get to the office on time. That is the choice you make based on the judgment of not being late for work is more important than sleep more.

Making the correct judgments are crucial to make the most out of the day. We make decisions every day, consciously, or unconsciously. And all those choices are made by different inner scales that vary among us.

An NTD list helps you get rid of recurring but bad behaviors with ease. The NTD list serves as a boundary to remind your mind to make conscious choices during the day. By doing that, you are no longer paying a huge mental price in shadow on things that make you detour or stop.

Thank you for reading—happy Reading and creating your NTD list.

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