This is what happened when I decided to make a to-do list that was the polar opposite of a conventional to-do list.
It’s been difficult to get things done because of the pandemic’s fog. Our normal methods of time management no longer feel effective after a certain stage. The traditional to-do list can appear to be less of a motivator and more of a dangling obligation—and an unnecessarily familiar one at that.
Throughout this remote-work experiment, I’ve found a loss of energy in myself. If I don’t do anything to “wake up,” like doing 50 jumping jacks or (more commonly) downing a cup of coffee, the afternoon will slowly but inevitably descend into moments of low energy and sluggishness. I’ve been experimenting with different efficiency techniques in recent weeks, such as the Pomodoro Technique and time-blocking, but I’ve decided to try out another strategy.
I’ve been using a “to-don’t” list for the past two weeks, which sounds like the equivalent of a to-do list but is a little more precise. The list is essentially a selective list of things that can drain your energy and motivation. They’re always appealing, but they lead to a distracting cycle that robs you of your most productive hours.
Look at what works for you and customize your “to-don’t” list accordingly. According to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach and frequent contributor to Fast Company, practicing self-awareness is a good place to start.
“You should reflect back on your day during a regular wrap-up,” she suggests starting the exercise with an end-of-day analysis, at least when you first begin. You will review what you achieved and what you didn’t finish during this period. You can also assess events that were not part of the original strategy. You may consider whether it was worthwhile. Was it something I liked? Is it possible that I was irritated or derailed as a result of my actions? You will begin to learn what is and isn’t good for you by keeping track of your own thoughts about the decisions you make.”
This is what I discovered over the course of my two-week experiment:
THE LIST ACTUALLY SERVED AS A REMINISCENT OF ALL THE INFINITELY SMALL THINGS THAT TAKE UP MY TIME.
My to-do list keeps me focused on the most important aspects of my day by acting as an accountability image, similar to a friend who doesn’t only give you compliments but often gives you “tough love” feedback when you need it.
To begin my list, I considered which of my daily activities did not serve me well. Some of these were evident, while others were snuck into my everyday schedule. I later inverted some of these habits for my to-do list, such as not moving for eight hours, spending too much time reading news, and allowing random clutter to accumulate on my desk.
I started collecting these things in a Google Doc, but I ultimately decided to keep my “ignore me” activities on a piece of lined paper, which is a refreshingly simple format. This distinct, tactile medium not only allowed me to keep track of tasks but also reduced my propensity to move between computer windows and applications.
“Don’t forget to take a break to rest your eyes,” and “Don’t sit in one spot for more than one hour,” were two of the seven directives on my final list.
When following these new rules momentarily interrupted my flow, I was disappointed at first. However, I found that they really paid off over time. I noticed that I was experiencing fewer physical and mental symptoms of exhaustion (i.e. more sustained alertness, less likely to turn to longer breaks). In the afternoon, my tiredness appeared to be less pronounced and more in line with my real work day.
My to-do reminder to drink less caffeine not only motivated me to drink more water, but also reminded me to break from my phone and take a minute to relax.
When I removed those tasks from my routine, I found that their importance (or, more accurately, lack of value) became more noticeable. For example, I constantly update my social media news feeds during the day. This practice keeps me up to date with the latest news, which is useful for my work, but it also means I waste time looking at a lot of similar stories from various sources. Unknowingly, the procedure was wasting my creativity and taking up so much of my time.
So, rather than jumping on any interrogative headline, I limited myself to 10-minute news reviews, pushing myself to browse for similar keywords and making a mental note to skip over details that were already known.
THE LIST ASSISTED ME IN CONTROLLING MY ENERGY AND FOCUS.
I found I was more instinctively conscious of what times of day and which places I was pouring more of my bandwidth into when working with a “to-do” list. I was able to recognize pockets where my motivation was at its peak and my concentration was at its sharpest after being conscious of which tasks were not adding value to my day—for me, it was usually in the morning and sometimes a last-minute jolt before the end of my work day.
This understanding, according to Saunders, can be especially beneficial for those who are feeling the pressure of spending so much time away from home or who just want a different approach to scheduling. “If you work remotely, I think a to-do list is helpful,” she says. “A lot of the time, our minds wander because we’re bored and looking for something to do. Knowing what your bad habits are when you’re bored and restricting them ahead of time will help you make better decisions at the moment.
Furthermore, I found that the less important, non-work-related activities on my to-do list often caused me to waste time and energy. Certain tasks, such as scheduling appointments or restocking a household item with an online order, worked better for my schedule if they were automated or done in batches. Otherwise, I’d find myself doing haphazard housecleaning or sinking into an excessively leisurely break after completing a non-work chore.
With my list of “no-nos” in front of me, I was able to keep a better eye on bad activities that I had previously felt were entirely efficient. This included a lot of time spent in my inbox. Following the test, I began to do more deliberate “10-second skims” of messages and only respond to those that were important. My “to-don’t list” also helped me reduce task-switching, stressing the negative impact jumping between tasks can have on your resolve and concentration. I was able to avoid an afternoon of just half-completed tasks by catching sight of my list.
THE LIST LEAD ME TO MORE WINS AND FEWER AFTERNOON SLUMPS
I not only refined where I put my resources by subscribing to this list of avoidable habits on a regular basis, but I also enhanced my sense of achievement at the end of the day. There’s something to be said about looking over your list of “don’ts” and not ticking them off, but instead praising yourself for the self-control required to pursue them. I didn’t feel too frustrated because I didn’t have an entire list of tasks to complete by late afternoon. Furthermore, my “to-do” list revealed why I had hit a brick wall. For instance, one day when I was particularly exhausted, I checked my list and discovered that I had neglected to fix number three on my list: “Don’t eat too many carbohydrates at lunch.
According to Saunders, a to-do list is beneficial because it can help us break free from a rut of ineffective tasks, many of which we can unintentionally repeat. “We engage in these habits because they are convenient, enticing, or simply a habit, but they are seldom fulfilling.”
Even when I tell myself, “Diana, you’re off the clock now,” a more confined and less socially active work environment has increased the amount of time I spend online for many remote workers like myself. A to-do list helps set guardrails between my job and leisure time in this way, which adds to the technique’s benefits.
One justification to use a “to-don’t list” for interference, says Saunders, is the blurring of boundaries. she says.“I’ve heard many [people and clients] say that in the past few months, they’ve cut back drastically on social media and news and are all doing much better,” With so much knowledge readily accessible about so many aspects of our daily lives, we must learn where and how to set boundaries.
THE LIMITATIONS OF A TO-DON’T LIST
Overall, I found the to-don’t list to be a fruitful exercise in that it allowed me to pick and choose the bad habits that plagued my day. It did, however, leave me yearning for the bigger priorities that keep me focused on and mindful of my objectives. A to-do list could serve as a friendly list of reminders for when my tasks were piling up, and both work and life were feeling especially stressful. It won’t completely replace your to-do list because it doesn’t change much from week to week, but it will help you recognize and prioritize your everyday goals.
You can use this same technique with your Virtual Personal Assistant to monitor him effectively.