1. Write a list of things which you often waste time doing, which don’t add value to your life
2. Stop doing the tasks on the list
So it’s the opposite of a To-Do list, but harder to follow!
What kinds of tasks should go on your Not-To-Do list?
Anything you use as a distraction from doing things which add value to your life. These may include:
• Constantly checking email, texts, social media, etc. Very few people need to be on call in order to respond to a life or death situation (i.e. mainly firefighters and doctors), yet most people act as if the world will end if a few hours go by without checking their messages. Checking your emails, phone, etc. at regular but less frequent times throughout the day saves time, allows you to respond efficiently and minimises the probability of your getting distracted (especially in the case of social media, when a “quick check” can easily turn into an hour’s browsing).
• Busywork which doesn’t yield results. Sending several emails instead of collating the information into one, constantly rearranging documents, writing unnecessary reports… Anything which you do because you feel you ought to, rather than because it’s effective.
• Watching television programmes you don’t particularly enjoy. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t bother to record a programme when you go out, don’t watch it just because you’re in!
• Casual gaming. This is one of my downfalls! These types of games are designed to be addictive and to distract you throughout the day. If you can’t limit your playing to a certain period of time, for example 30 minutes in the evening, cutting them out altogether might be easier.
• Online shopping. Instead of immediately searching for something you want as soon as the thought occurs to you, make a note and shop for it later. This consolidates and reduces the time you spend shopping (including the research as well as the actual purchasing!), plus it prevents impulse buying.
You can also include mental timesucks.
Certain thinking patterns can be as much of a distraction as physical activites. While limiting them can be difficult, especially if you have mental health problems, putting them on your Not-To-Do list can help you to become more aware of these cognitive pitfalls — which is the first step in tackling them.
Mental timesucks might include:
• Worrying, particularly about things outside of your control. A lot of people find it useful to set aside a time every day (around 15-20 minutes is common) to spend worrying. Whenever you start to worry throughout the day, you write it down and defer the worrying until your worrying time. Often, you will find your worries aren’t important when you return to them.
• Generating excuses for not doing something more productive. It’s amazing how we can put more time and effort into procrastinating than is required by the task we are putting off! Increase your motivation and get stuck in.
• Daydreaming. I know it’s something adults aren’t supposed to admit to, but everyone daydreams — even if they define it as something else. You might not indulge in full-on fantasies, but everyone wastes time wishing things were different, remembering past events and wondering “what would happen if…?” Try practising mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present.
So what do you do with your Not-To-Do list?
You can simply read your Not-To-Do list each day to remind yourself not to succumb to bad habits. You could make it into a poster and display it above your desk or some other prominent place where you will see it throughout the day. Or you could track your progress…
Try making a mark next to an item on your Not-To-Do list each time you engage in that habit.
You will build an accurate picture of how often you waste your time by doing this, which could motivate you to improve. It can also be useful to make a chart showing days and/or times, so that you can spot patterns and anticipate when you are liable to slip into bad habits.
Don’t forget to update your list!
Habits and tastes can change over time, but the main reason for updating your Not-To-Do list is that you will notice more timesucks as you become more aware of how you spend your time.
Because many of the ways in which we waste time are habits, we tend not to notice them until our awareness is increased. Not-To-Do lists increase your awareness of how you spend your time.
A note of caution: you are not creating a Not-To-Do list in order to punish yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up if you spend more time than you would like on the tasks on your Not-To-Do list. Creating the list is about regaining control of your time and punishing yourself for not measuring up to your expectations relinquishes control. Acknowledge that you could do better and move on.
Aim for gradual improvement, rather than a massive shift overnight. You will be surprised at how effective small tweaks can be!