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The Power of a Not To Do List: How to Succeed with Laser Focus

According to millionaires and top performers, a not to do list is more important than a to do list. Here is why.

Everyone is good in making a to-do list. We look around us and create lists of everything to keep ourselves busy and to make sense of the world around us. But have you ever tried writing a not to do list? Millionaires and top performers like Warren Buffet firmly believe that it is more important than a to-do list as it can improve your ability to focus and prioritize, which is essential to pursuing a successful career and living a blissful life.

Most people set bold goals and mistake dreaming big with trying to do everything at the same time. The problem with that is if you are trying to do everything, you will end up doing nothing. Five half-finished books and three incomplete projects still equal zero. Consistency and commitment to a single priority are incredibly rare today and so it is a huge value in a person. Do only a few things, but do them well. It might sound like ancient wisdom, but it is what made Warren Buffet the second wealthiest man in the world and you’ll get to know why in a minute…

Why A Not To Do List Beats A To Do List

Don’t get me wrong, to-do lists are important as well. They are a good way to write down what we might forget, to break down larger tasks into smaller chunks, to simplify the world around us and to give ourselves clarity. This way, we don’t get overwhelmed by information and don’t use up the limited storage space of our short term memory.

However, the average human being in today’s society is insanely distracted by an overstimulated environment. On average, our brain has to process the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day from information fighting for our attention: even when we have a few minutes spent waiting, we look at our phone screens or feel that we are supposed to be somewhere else. That’s exhausting for our mind.

If you want to be a top performer, your biggest and most important skill will be to focus, prioritize, and simplify the complexity of options around you both at the workplace and in your personal life.

It has been proven by several studies that multitasking is a myth. The best metaphor to describe the attention of the human mind is to imagine water flowing from a hose. You can switch the angle of the hose quickly between the flowers but you can only really water one flower at a time. It’s the same with our attention: when we think we are multitasking, we are actually shifting our focus between multiple subjects giving our mind the illusion that we are working on multiple tasks at the same time.

This sabotages our productivity because if we don’t pay enough attention to the one thing we are doing, we will take much longer to process the information and we will produce lower quality work. A tap on the shoulder from someone asking you if you have a minute interrupts your high-level focus and it might take up to an hour for your brain to get back to the same depth of attention afterwards.

The same is true on a broader scale: If you have a task you dread to do, you will find every possible way to invent other things to do and avoid acting on your utmost priority. I often catch myself screening through my to-do list automatically looking for the easiest thing to do while the action step I fear stubbornly remains on the top of my list. This is why I define maximum three priorities per day that need to happen no matter what and I put everything unnecessary on a not to do list.

Are you curious how the A-players do it? Here are two examples.

Case Study #1: The Not To Do List of a Multi-Billionaire

There is an anecdote about Warren Buffett, who is currently the second richest person in the world and one of the most successful investors today. Mike Flint was his personal pilot for 10 years and he was good at his job but he felt that he still didn’t achieve his greatest career goals. Buffett was concerned about the aspirations of the people who worked for him and so he asked Flint to write down his top 25 goals in life that would bring him the success he dreams about.

When Flint came back with the list, Buffett asked him to circle the five most important points from the list, the ones which were more important to him than anything else in the world. This was more challenging than coming up with the entire list but after thoughtful consideration, Flint has defined the five most important goals on his list. “Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you?” Warren asked him, and he replied yes with confidence.

Now he had two lists in front of him: the one with all the things he ever dreamed of and the one with his five utmost priorities. Warren asked him what he would do with his most important goals and Flint was determined to start working on them right away with a plan in mind about how to take the first steps. Then he asked his pilot about the other 20 points and Flint answered: “Well, they are also important for me… so I’ll work on those as and when I have time besides my top five. They aren’t as crucial, but I will still give them a dedicated effort.” What Buffett said after this has surprised the pilot:

“No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list’. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

This is the attitude what made Warren Buffett the businessman he is today: he rather seizes a few big opportunities when they come than chasing the ones that won’t be worth his time and effort. He delegates everything he possibly can and works only on a few things with full attention. The lesson is clear: If you want your dream to become a reality one day, you need to put everything else aside that’s secondary.

Case Study #2: The Not To Do List of a Productivity Junkie

Tim Ferriss is the best-selling author of The 4 Hour Workweek, serial entrepreneur, and self-proclaimed “human guinea pig”. He doesn’t just talk about the tools and hacks that lead to success, he tries and tests all of them on himself. This is what made him a popular speaker, angel investor and an advisor to companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Uber.

Tim shares his advice on his blog about how to keep away distractions and focus on the things that really matter. These are the disciplines from his not to do list that he keeps in mind every day:

  1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers: They are likely to be someone who does not deserve your attention.
  2. Do not check emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night: Spend this time on your own priorities.
  3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda: Define the agenda and end time beforehand.
  4. Do not let people ramble: Your time is your most valuable resource.
  5. Do not check emails constantly: Schedule a time once a day when you go through them.
  6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers: Focus your efforts on those few who bring 80% of your profit.
  7. Do not work more just to make your list shorter: Do the things which are urgent AND important.
  8. Do not carry your phone everywhere: Spend some time offline and off-screen.
  9. Do not overwork: Remember that work is not your life, work is a part of your life.

Before you decide what to do, define the things that you won’t do. This can be applied outside of your work life as well as a way to stop bad habits, for example, to avoid sugar, to make sure you don’t snooze in the morning, or to stop complaining. Setting a discipline of things not to do helps you eliminate unnecessary things that fill up your time and take away your energy. If you stick to these rules, you can say no to things that distract you and hold you back and it will remind you of those small a achievements that you might not notice otherwise.

How to Create Your Own Not To Do List

Success stories are nothing more than entertainment if we don’t put them into practice. Here are 3 different approaches to writing your own Not to do list:

The Not To Do List of Warren Buffett

If you want to focus like a billionaire, you need to pick maximum five big goals that you wish to accomplish and take steps only towards them. First, write down everything that you aspire from the goals that you are already working on to the dreams you fear to even say out loud. Once it’s done, circle the five from this list that makes your heart beat the most. Nothing else can even come to your mind until these are done.

Stay Productive by Eliminating Distractions

Write down five bad habits that do not serve you anymore and remind yourself to avoid them every single day. Alternatively, write down five of your biggest time wasters: these are usually other people’s priorities or the things you do instead of acting upon your scariest dreams. If you can’t think of five, you are free to steal ideas from Tim Ferriss.

Keep Track of Your Time

Toggle is a great tool to measure how much time do you really spend a day on reading emails, checking social media, meetings, projects and more. You will be surprised to know that the action steps that bring you most of your progress actually take up the least amount of time during your day. You only need to work hard on your biggest goals for a short time, but it is key to act on them first. Tracking your time will make you more aware of where do you put your energy most of the day so that you can eliminate the things that don’t help you succeed.

So Why is This All Important?

At the end of the day, no matter what kind of business you are into, you get paid for delivering. No matter how brilliant is your idea, half finished projects and almost completed products will still bring you zero results and revenue. When you plan a project, most things will take three times longer than you would first estimate but it doesn’t matter as long as you finish them. Paying attention to the details is great but limiting the number of details to perfect is even better.

We live in a society that’s insanely distracted. Our minds work in two ways: expanding its perspective and screening the environment for new ideas and opportunities or to focus on a single thing and simplify the ocean of information around us. We need the second so much more nowadays.Focusing is not about expanding our willpower but about saying no to everything else that comes in our way even if it’s a great option. Being efficient doesn’t worth a dime if we use it for things that should not be done at all.

Imagine how much more you could create if you put all your energy into only that 20% on your list that really matters? Imagine how much faster companies could progress if their employees stopped wasting time on unnecessary tasks and projects just for the sake of working? You can start developing laser focus and working like a millionaire right now: it all starts with writing your first not to do list.

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Message from Sophia!

I would love to hear from you and read your comments on this article. Let me know what you think about this article. Is it helpful to you? Your comments and suggestions will serve as an inspiration and learning platform for me.
Regards, Sophia
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