7 Ways to Reduce Stress With a To-Don’t List

Note: This is a guest post by Liz Massey of Creative Liberty.

“I’d love to do it, but I can’t fit another thing into my schedule.” How many times have you heard that-including out of your own mouth?

And mostly this oft-repeated phrase is a true statement: Surveys show that most Americans feel starved for time to do the things that matter to them. All around the world, “crazy busy” is a code phrase for doing what it takes to be successful.

But in addition to possibly bringing success, a packed schedule brings stress. Under such conditions, making a to-do list, instead of being a tool to help us achieve more, becomes yet another way to beat ourselves up, because we’re too busy to get to the things that we want to add to the list.

If all of this describes your situation a little too well, I’d like to suggest you make another list before you start in on your to-do list: a “to-don’t” list.

Where a to-do list is expansive, inclusive and encompassing, a to-don’t list is contractive, narrowing and boundary-defining. At the heart of the to-don’t list is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

Simply put, the 80/20 rule tells us that 80 percent of our success comes from 20 percent of our actions. Making a to-do list is about discovering the actions that comprise that magic 20 percent and focusing on them. The to-don’t list is about naming the other 80 percent of our actions for what they are – not crucial in a cosmic sense – and finding ways to resolve our entanglements with them.

A couple of caveats are in order here:

  • A to-don’t list is not an excuse to remove things you don’t like to do, but need to get done, from your plan of action.
  • It is also not an excuse to ignore family or friends to make room for behavior that is unhealthy or compulsive.
  • And it is not a way to avoid necessary confrontations or conflict (i.e. friction which eventually results in a better situation).

A to-don’t list is simply a list of actions which you are currently doing which are not high priorities at this time, and which you are willing to forego doing, at least for the immediate future.

When you make a to-do list, for new every item you add, be prepared to move at least one other item (and more likely two or three) to the to-don’t list.

Some potential to-don’ts can be massaged, with the time, manner or frequency of the item manipulated in some way to free up time or energy.

However, it’s truly surprising how many things turn out to be optional, and can drop off our to-do list without incident.

If you’re able to develop and implement a “to-don’t” list, you can reap the following seven benefits.

1. You can take advantage of a new opportunity when it arises.

No more worrying about whether this is the “right time” to pursue an attractive new option. Adding to your to-don’ts can help make now the right time.

2. You can cope more easily with sudden challenges and changing circumstances.

This is a less sunny restatement of benefit number 1, but it is perhaps even more important. How many people do you know have changed their lives dramatically – including how they spend their time – when faced with a crisis? Knowing that you can clarify your wants and needs if you’re buffeted by a difficult situation may make it easier to imagine surviving it.

3. You can become clear on what your priorities are.

Many people juggle actions that reflect their true priorities along with a host of social niceties, imagined favors and other actions that have merit, but just do not count as “essential” in their heart of hearts. The to-don’t list helps you make distinctions between actions that flow from deeply held values and actions taken primarily to please others, protect your reputation, etc.

4. You can do more with less.

Evangelists of the 80/20 principle promote this point as one of the greatest advantages to their mindset. With energy and time freed up to concentrate on the to-dos, focus provides the leverage to turn what doesn’t seem like “enough” into sufficient, even abundant resources.

5. You can say no more confidently.

Few people like to be told no, and fewer still seem to enjoy saying it to someone else. By drafting a to-don’t list, you can be more confident that the items you are saying no to truly can wait, or can be done by someone else other than you.

6. You can generate options to resolve conflicts more easily.

You may be able to generate counter-suggestions to a request after drafting the to-don’t list, and create a mutually satisfying result, even if you can’t provide what was originally expected.

7. Your to-do list will become more useful.

And that’s the intent of the to-don’t list – to support a to-do list that leads to meaningful, satisfying actions.

If you only have three things on your to-do list, but they’re the three right things for you to do today, and you do them, it’s far more productive than if you have a long list that never gets accomplished. And that’s what a to-don’t list can help you do: create a to-do list that’s about to-doing, not to-shoulding or to-wishing.

Liz Massey is an editor, writer and creativity coach based in Phoenix, who blogs about creativity-related topics at Creative Liberty. You can read another article of hers, about falling in love with your creative projects, by clicking here.

Free Exclusive Happiness Tips

Subscribe to The Positivity Newsletter and get weekly tips on happiness, self-esteem and plenty more.

You’ll also get three free guides on how to stop being lazy, what to do when life sucks and 21 things I wish they’d taught me in school.

100% privacy and no spam. You can unsubscribe anytime.

About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I love the Pareto Principle! I try to use it all the time; but, it’s a discipline that requires constant focus, and the “to don’t” list needs to be updated almost as often as the “to do” list.

    Recently, I added to my “to don’t” list, checking my ShortStat more than a few times a day. As a relatively new blogger, I used to do this constantly to look for patterns and trends. Now, I realize I’m familiar enough with those things so that my time is better spent elsewhere, such as making comments on other blogs. ; )

    Some of my posts on this key topic are: “7 Quick Tips for More Time and Less Stress”; “20 Tips for Highly Effective Time Management”; “How to Get a Handle on Procrastination”; and “Eat that Frog!” (a summary of the great self help book by Brian Tracey).

    Thanks for a great post, Liz!

  • I first came across the 80/20 rule in Tim Ferris’ book “The 4-Hour Work Week”. You really can do more with less as Henrik states above. Personal productivity is a huge buzz-word these days and there are just as many theories about how to succeed at it as there are books in a library. Learning to say “no” and to identify the real priorities in one’s life can be liberating.


  • I love the last point best. My to-do list often becomes a “to should” list, which, as a productivity tool, makes it pretty useless. I’ve been working with a two-column to-do list (one column of “gotta do” items and another of “do it eventually” items), but this looks like a good option to experiment with. Besides, it just seems more fun!

  • Thanks, Liz, for this brilliant idea!
    I haven’t actually DONE it yet, (of course, I just now read about it!) but even just recognizing the value of thinking about things and projects from this different perspective is being helpful!

    I just posted the links to the Ask Liz Ryan.com conversation list, too.

    Bright Blessings and Happy Tuesday!

    Karen J.

  • I love this post. And it is so timely for me as I just so realized how my stubborn belief of “You must work hard to make gains.” is affecting me — negatively. Working like a mouse in a wheel is no way of being productive.

    As a life coach, I know this, and yet the belief was so deep rooted I could not see its whole effects before. I just started working on doing less for more last night, so I really appreciate this post.

  • LJ

    I would love to see a concrete example of this in action. Any possibility?

  • Anonymous Coward

    Added to my to-don’t list: sample to-don’ts.

  • I learned that it is a problem for the human brain dealing with “no”. For example if I tell you NOT to think about a blue sky you will be more likely thinking about the blue sky than not to think about it.

    I changed several thinking habits in the way that I focus on what is to do and is important and quickly forget about unimportant things. Putting them on a don’t list seems to me counter productive and time wasting.

    Or probably I didn’t get the point right from your post.