The "Not to Do" List


  • Author Brendan Mcdonald
  • Published September 4, 2023
  • Word count 1,639

Harnessing the power of the "Do Not Do" list

Maximizing efficiency and rest

We all know it is necessary to be somewhat organized to get through life. The changes in our mental function make necessary special types of organization, like always putting your car keys or glasses in the same place.

So, in our relentless pursuit of success and productivity, we often overlook the significance of what we choose not to do. This holds particularly true for people with chronic illnesses like me who seek to optimize their performance while conserving their limited energy. By embracing the concept of the "do not do" list, inspired by the wisdom of Tim Ferris, we can elevate our efficiency, find respite, and reclaim control over our lives.

In this article, we delve into the notion that what you don't do matters as much as what you do and explore a range of practical activities that can be included in your personalized not-to-do list.

What you do not do matters as much as what you do

Time is a precious resource. To prioritize what truly matters, it is crucial to safeguard our time and mental energy. We squander these valuable resources daily on unproductive tasks, inefficient processes, time-consuming products, and negative habits. The concept of a do not do list comes into play to identify these pitfalls, enabling us to consciously avoid them.

As advocated by Tim Ferris, the not-to-do list helps us eliminate constant distractions and static, allowing us to focus on accomplishing meaningful tasks. When unsure what actions to take, simply concentrate on what not to do.

To create your do not do list, allocate some time to evaluate your tasks from the previous month. Review your old to-do lists and examine your calendar for meetings and other commitments. Additionally, reflect on any habits that may not be explicitly listed on your agenda, such as constantly checking emails, consuming coffee in the afternoon, or regularly engaging in menial tasks.

Anything that drains you emotionally lies beyond your control, compromises your health, damages your relationships with others, or adds little value to your overall productivity should be included in your do not do list.

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.” Peter Drucker

What is included in your do not do list

Constantly checking emails (or other messaging tools)

Email and other messaging tools like WhatsApp have become integral to our professional and personal lives, but incessantly refreshing our inboxes, or picking up our phone, can consume valuable time and mental bandwidth. Frequent email checking interrupts your workflow and productivity. Each time you switch focus from your current task to checking your email, it takes time to regain concentration and resume your work. This constant interruption can reduce efficiency and longer completion times for primary tasks.

Set specific time slots throughout the day to check and respond to emails and other messages, avoiding interruptions that hinder productivity. Add this practice to your do not do list.


Contrary to popular belief, multitasking often decreases efficiency and increases stress levels. Instead, practice single-tasking by dedicating your full attention to one activity at a time. Doing so can maximize your focus and accomplish tasks more effectively.

Answering calls from energy-draining contacts

Not all phone calls are created equal. We all know what I am talking about. Some people are mentally and emotionally draining. We must prioritize our mental well-being by setting boundaries and selectively answering calls from individuals who drain your energy or harm our overall mood. Guard your emotional reserves for the people who uplift and support you.

If you have to take an emotionally draining call, set a clear time limit, and ensure you plan to end the call on time or earlier if needed.

Bonus Tip! In our social circles, we often encounter people who tend to take more than they give or prove unreliable when it comes to being true friends we can count on. It's essential to reflect on whether the benefits we receive from these friendships outweigh the time and effort we invest in them. If the answer is negative, it may be worth considering whether these relationships are more of a time drain than a genuine source of support.

Don’t answer calls from unrecognized numbers

Answering calls from unknown numbers often leads to engaging in conversations that may not be relevant or important. These calls can take up valuable time, especially if they are sales pitches, spam, or irrelevant inquiries. Each call interrupts your workflow and requires time to determine its relevance and handle it appropriately.

It is often more efficient to screen calls from unknown numbers and prioritize those that are relevant or from recognized contacts. If people want to reach you, they will leave a voicemail message. If necessary, you can return the calls later or use alternative communication channels that provide more control over your time and attention.

After a few years of adding “don't answer calls from unknown numbers” to my “do not do list,” this practice has become second nature to me.

Taking a phone to bed

The temptation to scroll through social media or engage in mindless browsing before sleep can disrupt the quality of rest and negatively impact sleep hygiene. I know this is a hard habit to break but leave your phone outside the bedroom, or establish a technology curfew (I use the Do not Disturb mode and Focus mode function on my iPhone_. This allows your mind to unwind and promotes a more restful night's sleep.

Mindlessly scrolling social media

Social media platforms have become notorious for devouring our time and attention. Establish dedicated periods for engaging with social media, and resist the urge to mindlessly scroll throughout the day. Redirect that time towards activities that align with your priorities and bring you fulfillment.

Black neurodivergent shirt against a plain background. In the top 1/3 of the neurodivergent shirt is an elegant white infinity symbol consisting of three thin white lines. Just below the infinity symbol is the word Neurodivergent in elegant upper case white letters.

Engaging in unnecessary or ambivalent tasks

Challenge the notion in life that certain tasks are obligatory when, in reality, they provide little value or fail to align with your goals and priorities. If you have a chronic illness, or are just overwhelmed, be intentional about assessing the worth of activities such as ironing sheets or pajamas or pursuing unnecessary perfectionism in other aspects of your life. Eliminating such tasks frees up valuable time and reduces unnecessary stress.

Don't stress out if the laundry goes unfolded for several days, or if the floor doesn't get vacuumed when it needs it, or if all of the day's dishes don't get washed until the evening or the next morning, I'm okay with that. Having lived with fluctuating energy levels for the past few years I have convinced myself that a layer of dust protects my furniture! Don't get me wrong, my house is nowhere near filthy, but it's not spotless either.

“Nothing matters very much, and most things don't matter at all.” Arthur Balfour

Putting the needs of others first

Many individuals in life find themselves falling into the role of people pleasers. They struggle with saying no to requests and frequently take on additional work, even when already stretched for time. They often overcommit themselves to various plans, responsibilities, or projects, feeling compelled to fulfill every obligation that comes their way. Unfortunately, they neglect their own needs and well-being, hesitating to advocate for themselves or express their true feelings, often pretending to be fine when they are not.

It is crucial to recognize the importance of adding "putting the needs of others first" to your "not-to-do" list. While there may be situations, such as family illness or caring for small children, where prioritizing others' needs becomes necessary, we must strike a balance and prioritize our health and wellness. We must learn to rank our well-being at or near the top of our list of priorities.

By constantly prioritizing the needs and desires of others over our own, we inadvertently neglect our mental, emotional, and physical health. Over time, this self-neglect can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and a diminished capacity to effectively help others. Establishing boundaries and learning to say no when necessary without feeling guilty or obligated to take on more than we can handle is crucial.

Taking care of ourselves should not be viewed as selfish or neglectful of others. On the contrary, when we prioritize our well-being, we are better equipped to support and assist those around us. By recognizing our limits and setting realistic expectations for ourselves, we can strike a balance that allows us to be compassionate towards others while valuing and nurturing our needs.

It is essential to cultivate self-awareness and regularly check in with ourselves to ensure we are not sacrificing our well-being in pursuing people-pleasing. This means learning to listen to our needs, setting healthy boundaries, and being comfortable saying no when necessary. Doing so empowers us to lead healthier, more balanced lives, enabling us to better serve ourselves and those we care about.

By harnessing the power of the "do not do" list, we unlock new levels of efficiency, focus, and rest. The deliberate exclusion of low-value activities from our lives allows us to conserve energy, allocate it to more meaningful pursuits, and experience greater accomplishment. Let us embrace the liberation of saying "no" to unnecessary distractions and grant ourselves permission to eliminate guilt-inducing tasks from our routines.

By embracing this strategic approach, we empower ourselves to thrive in the face of chronic illness while reclaiming control over our time and energy. Elevate your performance, restore balance, and embark on a journey toward greater efficiency and well-being with the transformative potential of the "do not do" list.

Brendan McDonald, the author of The "Do Not Do" List, is a former humanitarian aid worker, who has ventured into challenging territories such as Kosovo, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Libya, Jordan, and Iraq. Brendan experienced burnout and was subsequently diagnosed with clinical depression. Brendan lives with several medical conditions, including CML, peripheral neuropathy, and BAVD. Brendan is the Editor of URevolution's Disability Magazine:

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