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  • Jason R. Waller

Real Productivity? Write Yourself a To-Don’t List

What you say “no” to is more important than what you say “yes” to.


Regardless of when you read this, I believe this sentence will hold true: today there are more distractions and white noise than ever before. In other words, I don’t see this curve going down — every day will be more noisy than the last.

Not only is the world becoming more complex, but we are as well. We’re getting promoted, starting companies, having children, etc., etc. The pace of our own complexity is on a steady rise.

This double-whammy of complexity demands that we play a different game with our time and our energy. What’s worked in the past simply won’t work in the future. As we grow, we need to examine if our approach to life and success should grow, too.

The Hazard of “Yes”

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” –Steve Jobs

Sure, you may have been a high-achiever who could juggle all the balls. But that was then, probably in college or your first job. Today, success means deciding which balls to drop. If you’re not dropping balls, you’re not growing.

Almost all of my clients are high-achievers with standards that are higher than reality. Of my clients that are “stuck,” one thing is common: they’re still trying to do it all. Of my clients that have really transitioned to breakthrough performance, a separate thing is true: they’ve truly accepted that they can no longer do everything.

A distinction: I’m not talking about saying “yes” to adventure or to an opportunity that feels risky, I’m talking about saying “yes” to the voices in our heads telling us we should, telling us we need to. These are the voices telling us that we can control every outcome and be involved in every decision — that everything can and must be perfect.

Say “No” Already!

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” –Warren Buffet

Social psychologist Susan Newman says that “as young children and teens, we have had ‘no’ drummed out of us . . . we’re taught to do what our parents say and what authority figures tell us.” Saying “no” is hard.

If you truly believe that too much “yes” is holding you back, then the first step of change is being aware of all the times you say yes. Notice when you agree, pitch in, go along with, or just say yes as a default. Notice when it’s easiest to say yes and hardest to say now. Just spend some time paying attention to when, where, and why you tend to say yes most.

Once you have a handle on your typical “yes” moments, now comes the time to experiment. Try saying no to just one of the things that you notice you regularly don’t. Maybe it’s a work project, maybe it’s an office event, maybe it’s just an idea for dinner. Whatever it is, try saying a clear and compassionate “no.”

The final step here is to see that the world doesn’t explode when you decide to cut things out. This is an important step! So often, our outsized fear is driving us to put more importance on the situation that it deserves. We think “if I don’t do it, nobody will,” or “if I don’t show up, everyone will notice.” Or any number of stories designed to keep up in “yes.” But by noticing when we say yes, experimenting with saying no, and seeing that we’re still alive, we can reprogram our fears to match reality.

Write Yourself a To-Don’t List

“Always remember, your focus determines your reality” –George Lucas

One of my absolute favorite reframing exercises is to, instead of writing a to-do list, write yourself a to-don’t list. Once you’re ready, and after you’ve experimented with saying no to things as above, try operationalizing “no” into a weekly rhythm.

I recommend finding a quiet time on Monday or Sunday, before the week begins, to sit down and write out a formal to-don’t list. These to-don’t items might be abstract, like saying no to a thought or a belief. But better are the practical to-don’ts, like saying no to a choice or action. Say no to the things you can actually control.

The cool thing about a to-don’t list is that you can still get that dopamine hit of productivity by checking things off the list! The even cooler thing is that this list has the power to really reshape the time you put towards the things that really matter. You get to become a black belt of “no,” not for the sake of no itself, but so that you can say a much bigger “yes” to the things that really matter.

Good luck on your journey, and let me know how it goes.


Originally published in Mind Cafe