What’s On Your To-Don’t List?

When the first iPad came out, I bought it, became obsessed, and, within two weeks, returned it. Why did the obsession wear off so quickly?

It didn’t.

I returned it because I was obsessed. I spent every free minute on it. Which left me with no free minutes. I wanted my freedom back.

When the second iPad came out, I bought it again. Why? Because it was thinner? Kind of. Because opening the cover turned it on instantly? Well, sort of. Mainly, I bought it because I was seduced. It really is such a cool device.

But once again I sold it.

For me, the iPad is a distraction. I’d open it up to write an article or do email and emerge hours later having watched four episodes of Modern Family. Fun, but not how I want to spend my time. Somehow, that doesn’t happen to me when I write on my laptop.

The first thing I did, after selling my second iPad, is add a new item to my To-Don’t list: Don’t buy another iPad.

My To-Don’t list is married to my To-Do list and they make a lovely couple. My To-Do list is visionary, wild, creative, and productive. My To-Don’t list is responsible, conscientious, protective, and attentive. My To-Do list helps me get the right things done. My To-Don’t list helps me avoid spending time on the wrong things.

Why do I need a To-Don’t list? To counteract the biggest myth of time management, which is this: If you work hard enough, organize yourself, and optimize your time, you can get it all done.

Don’t believe it. You can’t get it all done.

Over 21,000 people have taken a short productivity quiz on my website.  A full 50% responded “always” or “often” to the following statement: “Even though it feels like I work non-stop all day, I still don’t get the most important things done.”

So here’s a free pass: You don’t have to get it all done. In fact, it’s a mistake to try because the wrong things will fall through the cracks.

But that free pass comes with a responsibility: You need to make strategic, intentional choices about what you aren’t going to do so you can make time for the things you aregoing to do. In other words, instead of letting important things haphazardly fall through the cracks, you should actively push the unimportant ones through.

Things you place on your To-Don’t list don’t have to stay there forever. Some things — like my iPad — I leave on my To-Don’t list for years. Other things — like responding to email, answering my phone or surfing the Web — I place on my To-Don’t list for just a few hours at a time.

Here’s an extreme example: One time I was having trouble writing an important and difficult proposal. So I bought a round-trip train ticket between New York and Boston spent the entire, uninterrupted time finishing my work. My only break was a leg stretch in Boston, before I boarded the train back to New York. For 10 hours, everything besides my proposal went on my To-Don’t list.

You can also put things on your To-Don’t list that are more distracting than time-consuming.  (Distraction adds up to time wasted, remember.)

An unemployed friend of a friend was highly concerned with paying back her student loans even though she was allowed to postpone payments until she resumed employment. That kind of money stress was a distraction from her most important focus — finding a job. In her case, paying back her debt is a great candidate for her To-Don’t list. For now.

See where we’re going here? Your To-Don’t list is a tool to clear away the distractions – so you can focus on the things that are your highest priority, right now.

And that’s why, every day, for at least 15 minutes, I put everything on my To-Don’t list. Doing nothing at all for a few minutes helps me regain focus before I get back to work.

When Apple came out with their third generation iPad, I admit to being a little tempted… I started to read the reviews, but stopped myself before it was too late.

The experience prompted me to add one more thing to my To-Don’t list: Reading reviews about iPads.


  1. Peter,

    Your stated reason for getting rid of your iPads is that they increased your consumption at the expense of your production. The key difference between your iPads and your laptop seems to be the keyboard. You are apparently comfortable producing with your keypad while the iPad is more like a small television which encourages consumption. That’s why I have no interest in tablets [without keyboards]. Eventually people will stop typing and just talk to their computers and keyboards will become antiques. When that happens, they will have the option of being productive with tablets. Until then, keyboards help keep some of us productive.

  2. Jeff Whittle says:

    Peter, I’m forwarding this link to a great friend. Just yesterday she escribed how difficult it is for her to avoid jumping from half-finished task to half-finished task, always grabbing to catch the ball that was the nearest to being dropped — regardless of whether that ball was critical or irrelevant. Essentially, NOTHING is on her To-Don’t List. Your suggestions provide a practical way to get the right things done by making conscious decisions about what the WRONG things are.

  3. Greetings, Peter. I’m Jeff Whittle’s friend. (See, he really did forward it to me.) Jeff’s email pointed me to this post, and he has highly recommended your book to me twice – twice because the first suggestion got lost among all the To-Don’t activities I consume myself with. I look forward to reading your book, and I look forward to working on my To-Don’t list.

  4. Mahtab SYED says:

    Hello Peter,
    Very nice article. We all need a NOT-TODO-List as well !
    There was a myth created few years back, “It’s great to be multitasking all the time ?”
    I think we need to take this out of our mind. Single task, at one time, with utmost focus, is what we need today.
    The other day in Paris, I saw a man reading a book while walking. Its a no traffic zone and he was on his way to office which he takes daily, so he was mostly safe. But still he was looking outside the book say every 3-4 secs. I am not sure what was his level of concentration. :-) But he is somehow satisfied that he is at least finishing the book, somehow !
    Mahtab SYED

  5. As always, a deep and excellent article!

  6. Kim says:

    Speaking of iPads….when are you going to develop an app for the iPhone? That would make my 18 minutes even more efficient!

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