The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now


This is how the world felt before Crackberries. (LeoLuigi)

“Not-to-do” lists are often more effective than to-do lists for upgrading performance.

The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.

Here are nine stressful and common habits that entrepreneurs and office workers should strive to eliminate. The bullets are followed by more detailed descriptions. Focus on one or two at a time, just as you would with high-priority to-do items. I’ve worded them in no-to-do action form:

1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers
Feel free to surprise others, but don’t be surprised. It just results in unwanted interruption and poor negotiating position. Let it go to voicemail, and consider using a service like GrandCentral (you can listen to people leaving voicemail) or Simulscribe (receive voicemails as e-mail).

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night
The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia. E-mail can wait until 10am, after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items…

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”

4. Do not let people ramble
Forget “how’s it going?” when someone calls you. Stick with “what’s up?” or “I’m in the middle of getting something out, but what’s going on?” A big part of GTD is GTP — Getting To the Point.

5. Do not check e-mail constantly — “batch” and check at set times only

I belabor this point enough. Get off the cocaine pellet dispenser and focus on execution of your top to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies. Set up a strategic autoresponder and check twice or thrice daily.

6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers
There is no sure path to success, but the surest path to failure is trying to please everyone. Do an 80/20 analysis of your customer base in two ways–which 20% are producing 80%+ of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80%+ of my time? Then put the loudest and least productive on autopilot by citing a change in company policies. Send them an e-mail with new rules as bullet points: number of permissible phone calls, e-mail response time, minimum orders, etc. Offer to point them to another provider if they can’t conform to the new policies.

7. Do not work more to fix overwhelm — prioritize
If you don’t prioritize, everything seems urgent and important. If you define the single most important task for each day, almost nothing seems urgent or important. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of letting little bad things happen (return a phone call late and apologize, pay a small late fee, lose an unreasonable customer, etc.) to get the big important things done. The answer to overwhelm is not spinning more plates — or doing more — it’s defining the few things that can really fundamentally change your business and life.

8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
Take at least one day off of digital leashes per week. Turn them off or, better still, leave them in the garage or in the car. I do this on at least Saturday, and I recommend you leave the phone at home if you go out for dinner. So what if you return a phone call an hour later or the next morning? As one reader put it to a miffed co-worker who worked 24/7 and expected the same: “I’m not the president of the US. No one should need me at 8pm at night. OK, you didn’t get a hold of me. But what bad happened?” The answer? Nothing.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.” Review Parkinson’s Law in 4HWW and force yourself to cram within tight hours so your per-hour productivity doesn’t fall through the floor. Focus, get the critical few done, and get out. E-mailing all weekend is no way to spend the little time you have on this planet.

It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing. Different means, same end.

What other no-no’s would you add to the list?


Posted on: August 16, 2007.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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274 comments on “The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now

  1. Another great blog post. I am amazed at what happens when you look at life from a different angle. I would never think to develop a “not to do” list. Now that I have seen yours and I am working on my “not to do” list, I am seeing all the time I can save each day. Keep up the great posts and innovative insights.


    • Great advice Tim. Just by following your tips about batching emails, avoiding time-wasters and prioritizing, I have saved 2-3 hours per day in work – that’s about 10-15 hours per week. Next step: getting the hell out of the office!


  2. Hi Tim,

    This is the 2nd time I’ve seen you mention Grand Central. The first time was in the “Doing the impossible article…” about getting paper out of your life, not checking voicemail, etc.

    I went to Grand Central to sign up, but it’s in beta and you can only join right now if someone refers you. Can you share how you where able to get in the beta?

    It’s something I want to do, and would be the third thing from the “Doing the impossible…” article you recommend that I will have done. I already signed up for the remote control mail service by Earth Class Mail. The jury is still out because I haven’t been on it long enough, but early results are promising. I also got removed from any possible mailing list I could track down with the help of So thanks for the good advice there, and now hoping I can check out Grand Central also.




  3. Tim, agree with all your points – and I’m pretty sure all of these and more are in your book. If you’re reading and haven’t bought it? Don’t wait – give Crown Publishing more money.

    The only part of the 5th principle I have a problem with now is:

    “Set up a strategic autoresponder and check twice or thrice daily.”

    Tim, with your book on the bestseller now, this automated response just fills my inbox with crap.

    Here’s an alternative: Just check it at those times, and respond at those times. If they’re expecting a response quicker, they’ll get in touch with you via phone, if they can’t… obviously it’s not important to them and can wait a few hours.

    I recently tested this approach with my client, and if it’s their high priority and not some delegation without merit, then they’ll certainly make it known to you.




    Hi Donovan,

    Good alternative. Here are a few others: 1) Send all of them a single read-receipt e-mail notifying them of the new schedule, 2) Put this “I check and respond only at…” at the bottom of your outgoing e-mail in the signature, 3) Set your e-mail program to only send one autoresponse to each contact per week.

    Thanks for the input!



  4. I have been waiting for Grand Central since I read the book two months ago. Sounds like such a great gizmo. I wanna play!

    Jott has been one of the handiest tools to have in my pocket. Countless twenty second blurbs about some great ideas and some less.

    OK. I will now try the GoToMyPC. It sounds almost like magic. Any 30-day trials on Someone Else GO 2 My PC? I’ve done enough LCD for a lifetime!

    Namaste Tim


  5. I read something interesting on Creating Passionate Users the other day. Kathy quotes Time Magazine, “Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist,…believes part of the allure of e-mail–for adults as well as teens–is similar to that of a slot machine.
”You have intermittent, variable reinforcement,” she explains. “You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle.” Intermittent rewards result in distraction and ‘addiction’ more than continuous, guaranteed rewards do.

    Interestingly enough, nearly all of my ‘not-to-dos’ fall under this intermittent rewards category. I’d add, “Don’t let your life become a slot machine.”


  6. GrandCentral was open-beta before. Perhaps that changed when they were acquired by Google. Or they just got popular enough to be running out of phone numbers.

    Be careful (and not just because Google knows so much about you already), GC was built to make you MORE accessible, not less. Having one number that rings my cell, house, and work phones isn’t always a good thing. But their other features make up for it if you use them.

    I can’t think of a good way to hand out invites, or I’d share. Actually, I can, but it’s more work for the rest of you. Below are some links for some invites — beware! If you click ‘sign up’ on the invite, you HAVE to finish signing up then! Once clicked, the invitation is ‘used’ and you can’t go back and finish later with the same invite.

    Probably best if you post a comment that you’ve used an invite number, so others don’t waste time.










    Good luck.


  7. You have been a revelation, Tim. I am slowly going to be incorporating many of your suggestions into my practice as, quite frankly, it is the only way to operate in today’s world. Thank you for the great business ‘bible’ I now keep bedside.


  8. One thing I would add. Don’t try to save everything. Save documents you think you might need on your computer and then throw the hard copies away. They create way too much clutter and then you have to waste more time just organizing them on your desk. Throw things away. You can always print stuff out later if you really need it. Or just read it on your computer.