How To Do More With Less – The Not To-Do List

We all know about to-do lists…

But what on Earth is a not to-do list?

Let me tell you – it is one of the greatest things you can do to get serious traction on your big goals.

And this week on the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we’re taking a deep dive into how you can use a not to-do list in your life.

We explore the benefits of limiting your focus by practicing constraint.

We discuss the step-by-step process of creating a not to-do list.

And we talk about the two key approaches you must consider as you put the process into action.

If you’re ready to make progress on your goals, make sure you check out episode 53 now.  

You can stream the episode below, or listen on your favorite podcasting app:

Prefer to read? Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.



  • The concept of constraint and how it helps you reach your goals
  • Two crucial components of the not to-do list
  • The step-by-step process to create and use a not to-do list in your life



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How To Do More With Less – The Not To-Do List (Transcript)

You are listening to that I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson episode number 53.

Hey, everybody! Welcome to the podcast. I hope this last week in July is going well for you. I don’t know about you, but I’m in a bit of denial right now that August is creeping up so fast. 

Don’t Miss the 6 Weeks to Success Giveaway!

And this reminds me, the 6 Weeks to Success giveaway to celebrate you listeners and I’m Busy Being Awesome reaching one year of episodes ends next Monday, August 3rd. So if you are listening to this in real-time, this is a friendly reminder – don’t forget to enter! 

Two listeners are going to get access to my complete 6 Weeks to Success course. This is my entire goal-setting framework from start to finish and it teaches you exactly what you need to do to set and reach one of your goals in 6 weeks.

So if you want to get entered to win, all you have to do is go to your podcasting app and leave a rating and review for the podcast. Take a screenshot of that review and email it to me Paula at I’m Busy Being Awesome .com and I’ll enter you to win. It’s as simple as that. Just make sure you get it in before August 3rd.

Increase Productivity With a Not-To-Do List

Alright, today we are exploring the concept of the to-do list with a slight twist, which is the not-to-do list. 

So, a week or two ago I was working with a client on setting their 30-day goal, and I was teaching them about the concept of a not-to-do list. And just as it sounds, the not-to-do list is simply a list of things that you are not going to do. 

And as I explored this concept with my client, she asked me if I had any podcasts that talked about this topic more in-depth, and I realized that I didn’t! So I figured I had better remedy that stat. Thus, our not-to-do list podcast is here. So shout out to my client – you know who you are – for making this great suggestion. 

Which reminds me, if you have something that you want to hear on this podcast, send me a message. Let’s connect on Instagram I’m @imbusybeingawesome. Send me a DM. Share your requests or your ideas. And I will get them on the podcast just for you.

A Never-Ending To-Do List

So the not to-do list – I’ll be the first to admit that it might sound a little strange at first – it certainly was for me. Especially because I’d always been a person who had a long to-do list, to which I was always adding more projects. And the list was filled with a huge range of things.

It had urgent tasks that needed to be done that day, which were combined with big long-term goals, and everything was basically jumbled together on one long list. 

Part of the reason I kept everything together like this was that I had a terrible understanding of how long things would actually take me, and I’d convince myself I could get much more done in one day than humanly possible. And part of it was because my brain was convinced that if I didn’t write it down, I would never remember it and my brilliant ideas would slip away.

Now, after I got diagnosed with ADHD, I learned that these are two very common traits for those of us with an ADHD brain, but I also know from working with some of you who don’t have ADHD that many others struggle with these massive to-do lists. too. And if you fall into that category, and if you’ve ever taken time to write down everything that you want to do on one list, then you’re probably familiar with that feeling of overwhelm that usually follows after you get everything down. Because if you’re like me, you keep thinking to yourself I am never going to get all of this done. There’s so much to do, and not enough time.

The Power of Constraint 

Once I decided to take control of my time and start managing my mind with coaching and thought work, however, things started changing. 

I started challenging myself to really learn how to manage my time. I learned how to get and stay focused on whatever project it was that I was doing for the day, and I learned how to identify what was actually important and warranted my attention.

And one of the most powerful ways that I learned to do this was through practicing constraint. I started seeing the value in learning how to truly constrain my focus to a handful of important priorities so that I’m not burning up all of my energy barely scratching the surface of dozens of different tasks each day. 

And as I dove further into the practice of constraint, it eventually led to my love of the not to-do list.

What is Constraint?

But before we talk more about that, let’s talk about the value of constraint generally. What do I mean by this? And why is constraint so important if we want to move forward and take ourselves to the next level?

Now, I’m not going to lie, “constraint” doesn’t necessarily sound like a super fun word. I mean, when you look it up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, some of the definitions include “the repression of one’s own feelings, behaviors, or actions.” And “the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action.” 

However, the Cambridge Dictionary offers a definition that I think is especially fitting here, which is: “something that controls what you can do by keeping you within particular limits.”

And when we think about practicing constraint in our lives, the “something” that controls what can do is us. In other words, we put constraint on ourselves within particular limits, which controls what we are ultimately able to do. 

Focused Attention

And the truth is that this is an incredible thing. Because as we will find, when you practice constraint, and when you keep your focus within particular limits, this does control what you are able to do – in that it allows you to propel yourself forward at a faster rate on those priorities that you identified for yourself. You are able to focus your energies on those handful important tasks, rather than spreading yourself in over dozens of different things without making notable strides forward in any of them.

Just think about the last time you achieved a big goal. How did you get there? Did you spread yourself thin working equal amounts of time toward 15 different projects? Or did you go all-in on that project with a constrained focus? I’m guessing it’s the latter. Because when we are able to focus on a handful of things rather than trying to juggle 15 or 20 different tasks all at once, we’re going to move forward quicker on those things that are important.

Challenge of Constraint

With that being said, this can be hard. It can be hard to narrow down your focus. It can be hard to say no to additional requests. And it can be hard to feel like you have to choose between things that all seemed important. 

Because chances are, if you are listening to this podcast, you are interested in stepping up your game, of getting to the next level, and of reaching the next goal. And there is nothing wrong that by any means. 

In fact, it makes me think back to our strengths and weaknesses episode – which I believe was number 49 – and the concept of your weaknesses being strengths in overdrive. I think it’s incredible that we are people who want to do awesome things. And we want to keep expanding and growing and learning. However, when we let that desire to do more overtake our ability to focus on a handful of different things, that’s when we start to struggle. Because we end up spinning our wheels without moving forward at all.

Too Many Goals

And one of the areas where I see this come up a lot for my clients is when we work on our 30-day goal challenge. Often when I work with a client, we set a 30-day goal for them to work on throughout our sessions. And one of the first things we do is brainstorm all of the different things that they might want to do over the next 30 days. 

But the challenge is that they’ve just created an incredible list of amazing goals they want to work toward, and now they have to pick just one. As I’m sure you can imagine, this becomes challenging because they want to do all of them. They want to do all the things all at once. 

Nevertheless, I challenge them to just pick one. Now, this doesn’t mean they can’t do other things. But they’re putting their extra effort and extra focus into working on that one goal. Because if you’re trying to do eight different 30-day goals all at once, you don’t move forward. Instead, you spin out not knowing what you should focus on first.

And this is where the not-to-do list comes in.

What is a Not To-Do List?

Now, we are going to look at this concept through two different approaches, and we’re going to discuss both in-depth. But the general overview of these two different approaches is the not-to-do now list, versus the not-to-do ever list. And both of these approaches are really critical to explore and consider as you create your own not-to-do list.

Now, before we talk about both of these concepts, I first want to make a note that the general concept of a not-to-do list might sound a little bit contradictory to what we explored two weeks ago in episode 51 when we talked about strategies for establishing good habits. 

If you remember back in episode 51, we talked about focusing on what you will start doing rather than stop doing. We talked about the idea of what you focus on grows. And this is very true when you are focusing on a habit that you are trying to establish. It’s really important to focus on what you want to start doing when you are practicing daily habits rather than dwelling on what you want to stop doing. In other words, I’ll start eating more vegetables rather than I’ll stop eating so much junk food.

And on the surface, this concept of what you will start doing might appear contradictory to the idea of the not-to-do list, but don’t worry. The ideas actually blend together well, and we will talk about how that works as we go through the steps. So just in case you are listening to this thinking, wait a minute – you just told us to focus on what we’ll start doing two episodes ago! – don’t worry. It will all fit together. So stick with me.

Not To-Do Now

Now, like I said, we have two approaches to our not to-do list. We have our not to do now and our not to do ever. And we’re going to start with the not now list.

This first list was one of the biggest game-changers for me as someone who – as I mentioned earlier – was always working from a never-ending to-do list. By creating a not-to-do list – and more specifically, a not now list – it helped remove that pressure that I put on myself that I needed to get everything done now. I had an easier time dismissing the thoughts that I had to “find all the time” and “get all the resources” and “never stop working so that I could get everything done all once.” 

When I took some of those ideas and goals and projects off of my to-do list and moved them to my not-to-do now list – it really helped lighten the load without my brain freaking out.

So how do we create this not to do now list?

Create A Not To Do Now List

The first step in the process is doing a to-do list download of all of the things you want to do. This is your big master list of everything you’d love to accomplish. 

To-Do List Download

So write down all of the goals and the projects and the tasks both big and small that you want to get done over the next couple of years. I like to constrain my focus to about 2 or 3 years. And you can focus this specifically for work goals, personal goals, relationships, whatever. But take some time to do a huge to-do list download of all the different things you want to do.

Identify Your Top 5 Priorities

After you created that list, then take a moment to read through it and identify the top five things on that list that are most important to you. What are the top five things that you want to accomplish first no matter what? So maybe it’s getting a raise, maybe it’s publishing a book, maybe it is launching your business or buying a car or completely de-cluttering every room in your home. Whatever it is that’s most important to you right now, identify those top five goals.

Eliminate Non-Related Tasks

After you’ve done that, go through your listing again and cross out anything that is not directly related to making those top five goals a reality. And don’t worry, when you cross them out it doesn’t mean they are completely gone. It just means you’re going to keep them on your not-to-do now list saved away in a Google doc or in your notebook for later after you completed something in your current top five.

That being said, if there is something that is related to your top priorities, you can keep it on that list because it’s going to build up to your ultimate end goal. So if you did want to declutter your entire house over the next year, but you also wanted to list the items from your basement to sell online, that would likely contribute to your end goal. You could turn that smaller project into one of the steps to help you get to that end product of a decluttered house. Again, go through that list, cross out the things that don’t directly correlate to your top five focus areas, and keep the ones that might turn into smaller steps that will lead to the end goal.

Reconsider Commitments

The next step comes from a tip I learned from Michael Hyatt, which is to look back to your past month of activities and commitments. 

So look back at your calendar or your planner and consider your meetings, activities, projects, commitments, etcetera. As you look at your calendar and how you spent your time over the past month, ask yourself: “what did I do that contributed to these top five focus areas?” And “what took away from these top five focus areas? What was not contributing to my forward momentum?” And finally, “what on this past month’s list of meetings, activities, projects, whatever, should go on my not-to-do list going forward? Whatever you come up with, add it to that list.

Think About Your “Should Do” Tasks

And then the fifth and final area that I recommend exploring as you think about your not-now-to-do list, is all of those tasks and commitments that I call your “should do” tasks. 

You know what I’m talking about, right? 

I’m talking about all of those commitments, meetings, and projects that you tell yourself you “should do” even though you really don’t want to. Maybe you just don’t like doing them. Maybe they are not an area of strength. Or maybe they feel like a waste of time. What are those areas that you tell yourself you “should do” but would much rather not do?

Take a look at that list, and think carefully about whether they are contributing to your top five. Do you really need to do them? Of course, the answer is no, because the truth is, you really don’t need to do anything. At all. You could literally just sit here for the rest of your life and do nothing. Will there be consequences? Yes. But you don’t have to do anything. 

So with that in mind, what are the tasks that you’re telling yourself you “should do”? If they’re not contributing to your top five, get honest with yourself. Do you really need to do them? If not, add them to your not-to-do list.

Not To-Do Ever List

All right, so we have talked about our not to do now list, and now I want to explore our not to do ever list. 

So just like the name sounds, these are tasks and activities that you just don’t want to do anymore. You’re done with them. No more wasting time on whatever these things are.

Now, when I say this, and I ask you to think about what you don’t want to waste your time on anymore, there may be some things that already come to mind. 

My Inbox

One of the first times I did this exercise, something that came to my mind was wasting time on email. At the time I constantly checked my email. I was constantly bouncing from tab to tab between my different inboxes to see if a new message came in. And I would sit with all four different inboxes open on my desktop at all times as a constant distraction. 

Now, I knew this was a terrible use of my of time. And I knew it was something I did not want to do anymore. So that was an easy thing to add to my not to-do ever list. 

And this is where our focus on what we want to start doing from episode 51 comes in as well. So we’ve identified what we don’t want to do anymore, right? In this situation, I don’t want to waste my time bouncing from inbox to inbox all day long. And while I could leave it there, I personally like to create a solution that I’m going to start doing instead. So that way I have identified where I’m not going to be spending my time – which is bouncing from inbox to inbox and leaving my tabs open all day — and I’ve also decided what I’m going to start doing to replace that habit. 

And in this case, I decided to start batching my emails. In other words, I dedicated a certain amount of time each day when I check and answer my emails. So I identified what went on my not to-do ever list. Then I turned it into what I wanted to start doing. This helped me build healthier habits around managing my inbox.

So if you have a similar area or areas that came to mind immediately when I asked you to think about what you would put on your not to do ever list, I encourage you to make note of the thing that you don’t want to do anymore. And then identify what you’ll start doing instead.

Time Audit

But we’re not going to stop there. Because chances are, there are several other things going on that you may not realize you’re doing. And yet, they are sucking up time and would benefit from going on your not-to-do ever list as well. And the way that I encourage you to uncover those items goes back to my tried-and-true practice of doing a time audit and tracking your time. 

Now, I’ve talked about this several times in other episodes, so I won’t dwell on it here. But I encourage you to spend a few days – perhaps in the middle of the week, a Tuesday and Wednesday or something, to track your time. You can do it in a notebook, you can use an app online, but spend some time tracking everything that you’re doing. Figure out where your time is going. Then, look at your results. Where are you spending your time? What surprises you?

Social Media Posts

The first time I did a time audit while creating my not-to-do list I found some things that I expected to see on there – like spending too much time watching Instagram stories. But I also found some results that I didn’t expect to see in the results.

One of the big surprises was in my social media content creation. I realized that I was wasting incredible amounts of time trying to write a new post every day rather than batch working all of my posts all at once on one day. It turns out that posting each day meant that I would spend a bunch of time trying to think about what I wanted to write, and then I’d have to find a picture, and then I’d have to edit everything, EVERY DAY, and everything took so much time. And when I did my time audit, I was pretty shocked at how much time ultimately slipped through the cracks. And so I decided that I would stop doing that, and I would start batching my social media post once a week.

So again, you can use the time audit to identify your time sucks. Then, you can think about the things that you do not want to do anymore. What do you want to include on your not-to-do ever list? And if it applies, decide what you want to do instead. What is it that you’re going to start doing instead so you can give your brain something to focus on as you’re establishing that new habit that will both save you time and allow you to focus on your top 5 priorities.

Micro And Macro Use

Now thinking about this strategy as a whole, I want to point out that you can take this strategy of the Not-To-Do list and apply it to smaller projects and tasks as well. In fact, you could do it each week if you wanted. You could look at the things you want to do for the week, and then decide what you’re going to focus on and what goes on your not-to-do list each day. This would help you constrain your focus and eliminate unnecessary overwhelm as your brain freaks out trying to decide what to work on first. So again, this is a skill that you can apply on both the macro and the micro-scale.


So as a quick recap, it’s all about practicing constraint. It’s about narrowing your focus so that rather than spreading yourself thin and constantly treading water, you can go all-in on a handful of important activities and actually move forward at a faster rate.

In order to help you constrain your focus, it’s super useful to have your not-to-do list. And as you think about your not-to-do list, think about both your not-to-do now and you’re not-to-do ever lists.

By putting these strategies into practice, you will have a much easier time narrowing your focus, knowing exactly what it is that you need to work on each day, and best of all, you’ll start seeing forward progress in the areas of your life that are most important to you faster than you thought possible.

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