Everyone’s heard of the “To-Do List.” Whether you use Outlook, a software outlining program, or the back of a paper napkin, the idea is the same: you list in priority order the items you want to get done. Simple. Elegant. Powerful. Until you have more items that you can physically get done. Enter the “Not To-Do List.”

I stumbled across this idea a few months ago. The idea is to list all the activities you are intentionally going to stop doing for the sake of greater productivity.

Here’s why this is important. As people succeed at work, they attract more and more assignments. It’s like they become a task magnet. “Give it to Laurie. She’ll to a great job!” The problem is that people are a finite resource. I don’t care how good you are, you only have so much energy and so much time.

The only way for these super-productive people to continue to grow professionally without going crazy is periodically to decide what they are not going to do. This is particularly important for people who have just been promoted to a new job. That’s when you really face the pressure to perform and it’s the most difficult to say, “no.” But you must say “no” if you are going to say “yes” to the things that really count—both in your job and in your life.

Keep in mind that the great risk for people in a new job is that they continue to do their old job. Read that sentence again. “Now why would they do that?” you ask? Probably because it is familiar. And probably because their supervisor didn’t tell them they had to stop doing it. Being aware of this dynamic is half of the battle.

The other half of the battle is to sit down and literally create a Not To-Do List. Here’s how:

  1. Find a quiet place where you can think.
  2. Look at your previous month’s calendar activities. Write down anything you’re not sure really fits your current job description.
  3. Look at your upcoming appointments for the next month. Again, write down things that are questionable in terms of your current job description.
  4. Go through your to-do list(s) and do the same thing. Write down the questionable activities.
  5. You should now have a list of “not to-do candidates.” Good work! You’re almost done.
  6. Now go through the list and put an asterisk beside each item that is significant enough that you want to add it to your official “Not To-Do List.”

Once you get your list done, share it with your assistant (if you have one) and your colleagues. If you can enlist their help (no pun intended), they can help you screen out activities and tasks that no longer belong on your to-do list. It’s especially important to discuss your Not To-Do List with your boss. You need her buy-in so she doesn’t keep assigning you work that you’ve determined you should no longer should be doing.

Just to stimulate your own thinking, here is my current Not To-Do list:

  1. Conduct contract negotiations with agents or authors
  2. Travel by car to other cities unless they are less than one hour a way
  3. Check or transcribe my own voice mail
  4. Read unfiltered e-mail
  5. Review book proposals for possible publication
  6. Answer my own phone
  7. Return calls to authors other than the handful of top ones
  8. Attend Title meetings
  9. Serve as a Director on an outside Board
  10. Write deal memos
  11. Write marketing plans
  12. Take meeting minutes
  13. Attend Ed Boards
  14. Attend Pub Boards
  15. Attend process review meetings unless there’s a compelling reason for me to be there
  16. Attend Sales Conferences (other than for the feedback session)
  17. Attend trade shows for more than two days
  18. Attend ECPA meetings for more than two day
  19. Attend author acquisition or planning meetings (other than to make a brief appearance and say “hello”)

Even if you haven’t just been promoted, you will find the Not To-Do List helpful. This is especially true if you want to maintain some semblance of balance in your life. If you don’t periodically take a machete to your to-do list, it will eventually grow over everything and strangle you! I know of no better way to “buy time” than with this simple tool.