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The “To Don’t” List

I’m a list maker…always have been.  I like lists because they make me feel like I’m moving forward (or at least planning to move forward), and because checking things off simply feels good.  Beyond liking lists, I need them to both remember the past (I jot down a “top 10” list after every trip I take) and frame the future (I keep track of everything from fleeting ideas to daily tasks to big picture goals to places I want to visit and people I want to meet).  As a function of spending time at a computer during the day, I’m making more and more lists online (Evernote is my favorite platform for this), but I still prefer the old school ones I write by hand and tack up on my wall or chalkboard or fridge to see every day.

I’ve always thought about lists in an open, positive sense — What do I want to accomplish?  Who are my role models?  What to I need to finish today?  What sort of person do I aspire to be?  I thought it was negative or bad karma to frame anything in terms of what I don’t want to do or how I don’t want to behave.  But I re-visited this recently when I read Dan Pink’s Flip Manifesto, a short e-book on motivation, inspiration and leadership (you can get a copy by signing up for his newsletter at    One of the ideas he puts forth in the motivation section is the idea of a “don’t do” list.  This idea originated from two management thinkers — Tom Peters and Jim Collins — and is grounded in the notion that what we intentionally decide not to do might be just as important as what we decide to do.  I think this quote from Jim Collins sums it up well: “A great piece of art is compiled not just of what is in the final piece, but just as importantly, what is not.  It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most of all, a life.”

I relate to the sentiment about letting go.  For much of this year,  I was playing with big business ideas — things that would have taken an immense amount of time and money and required significant sacrifices.  When I let go of the frame that I had to do something major (try to start a world-changing company) in order to be “successful,” I was freed to do something that brings me fulfillment (doing work projects I care about, writing this blog, and simply living my LIFE).  That’s not to say that I’ll never start a company (I still hope I can and will), but making the decision that it’s not what I want to do right now liberated me much more than it limited me.

On a more day-to-day level, I’m interested in exploring Dan Pink’s idea, so I made a “To Don’t” list this morning and tacked it up.  Here it is:

This is just a start (and sort of reads like a 5-yr-old’s list, right?), but my gut says this list should be short and simple.  I’m interested to see how this plays out of the next month or so.  I’m admittedly skeptical because I’m wired to believe in vision and hope much more than limits, but I’m also open to the idea that putting a few guardrails in place about things to avoid might be helpful.  What about you?  Have you tried making a “to don’t” list?  Does it work?  Does it change the way you think and behave?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. ebriceno #

    I like the “To Don’t’s” term, very clever! 🙂 I have done something like this and have found it to be helpful. Every morning I do a quick (<10 min.) self-mgmt routine. Part of it is checking off ~7 items or so about the prior day – habits I want to adopt (some things are things I want to do, some are things I want to not do). This helps me remember every day the behavior changes I want to make, and track my progress. It's inspired by a daily checklist Ben Franklin used for most of his life ( Anyway, my quick routine also ends in reading a quick list of things not to do while I'm doing focused work (similar to yours – not opening my personal email, or personal task list). The part of your post about reflecting on what to do in your life also reminded me of a post a friend of mine shared recently on that topic. You may find parts of it interesting:

    December 21, 2012

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