Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time in the day? Is “busy” your go-to response when people ask how you’re doing? Do you ever end your workdays feeling like distractions got the best of you and kept you from getting enough done?
If so, you’re preaching to the choir. I’m a business attorney for creative entrepreneurs. I love running my own law firm, but staying focused and productive is always a challenge for me. Like many of my creative clients, I struggle with staying on track and not chasing the latest shiny objects. My job is all about protecting businesses, but in order to do that it’s really my productivity that needs protecting.
Now, I’m not a productivity guru. But I’ve done a ton of research on the subject, and I’ve experimented with different tools and practices to keep myself on track.
There’s one productivity tool that’s been especially helpful for me. It’s called a “Not-To-Do List.”
With a Not-To-Do List, you embrace the reality that you can’t do everything. The idea is simple: say no to distractions to stay more focused and productive.
“Minimalism is subtraction for the sake of focus.” – Unknown
Here are four things to put on your Not-To-Do List. You may have heard some of these before. But in this post, we’ll dig into why this stuff matters and how to put these tips into action.
1. DO NOT use any screens while bookending your day.
Why: We’ve heard this before. There are tons of articles out there (like this one) emphasizing the negative effects of “screen time” before bed. The lights on these devices keep us from quality sleep time. Plus, sleeping with a phone makes people anxious; it can cause you to wake up throughout the night to check your phone. This addiction to our devices causes just as many problems in the morning. Looking at your phone first thing in the morning stresses people out. This bad habit can wreck that morning routine you’ve been working on. And it sets a stressful mood for the rest of your day.
How: Think about what time you want to get up in the morning. Then choose a time for yourself that you must be in bed by, keeping in mind how much sleep you need. The hour before that bedtime becomes a screen-free zone. If you want to start sleeping at 10PM, then screens get put away at 9PM. Put your phone away from your bed. Use this time to read, write, play with your dog, etc. When you wake up, force yourself to wait at least an hour before grabbing your phone. Investing in an actual alarm clock will make this easier.
Exceptions: What if you have a morning routine? What if you rely on your phone for certain apps in the morning? Some people depend on apps to help with meditating, reading, journaling, or exercising. If that’s the case, then think about what apps distract you in the morning. (I’m looking at you, Facebook and email.) Throw all those apps in a “Distractions” folder, and move that folder to its own screen to make it harder to locate.
2. DO NOT turn on notifications.
Why: When you’re “in the zone,” the last thing you need is a buzzing sound to break your attention. Stop telling yourself that you can multitask. You can’t. Even if you ignore those notifications, you’ll still lose productivity. And you’ll be three times more likely to make mistakes!
Exceptions: Not all notifications are bad. There might be instances where those notifications do more good than harm. You might have certain apps that you’d never check if you didn’t have notifications. Feel free to leave notifications on for these kinds of apps (like Uber).
3. DO NOT check your email more than three times a day.
Why: This point relates to the first two items on this list. We’ve become addicted to our email. Your inbox is just another to-do list. Studies show you can reduce your stress levels by checking your email less often. I know, we live in a culture of immediacy. So this one might rub you the wrong way. But limiting the times you check your email will allow you to get more done. Busy people appreciate this kind of effort to serve them better.
How: Since you’ve already turned off notifications, part of the work is already done here. Next, set up an autoresponder on your email. Stuck on what to write? Feel free to use mine:
“Thanks for the email. Due to a high workload, I’m currently checking and responding to email twice a day. This helps me accomplish more to serve you better.
If it’s truly urgent, please call my cell. If you don’t have it, thanks for waiting until I can respond to your email.
All the best to you and yours,
If you use Gmail, here’s a resource to set this up. Keep in mind that Gmail will only send the autoresponder to the same contact every 4 days. This means anyone who emails you multiple times in the same day won’t get bogged down by these autoresponder messages. If this rubs you the wrong way, you could put a similar message in your email signature.
Exceptions: Okay, I get it. Maybe you have a super demanding boss, or maybe it’s your job to quickly put out fires throughout the day. While your sense of urgency might be overblown, I’m not here to argue with you. At a minimum, choose a 5-hour window in your week where you work on emails offline. This allows you to focus on the existing items in your inbox and not get sidetracked by incoming messages.
4. DO NOT have multiple tabs open.
Why: As you can tell by now, the items on your Not-To-Do List are meant to keep you from multitasking. And if multi-tasking has a best friend, it’s browser tabs. I’ll let this guy explain.
How: Two tips here. The first is from that video above (Seriously, check it out. He’s kind of hilarious.) It’s called Tabless Thursdays. Basically, every Thursday, only use one tab on your browser at a time. Simple, right? The second tip is to download the “OneTab” extension for your browser. The next time you realize you’ve lost track of all your tabs, this extension comes to the rescue. It snags all those tabs and combines them into one tab with links to each specific website you were on. This tool doesn’t just help you fight off multitasking. It also reduces the amount of memory that your computer uses, which is always a plus.
Putting this into practice
You might be telling yourself, “This all sounds great, but how am I supposed to remember all this?” That’s the beauty of having an actual Not-To-Do List. By having an actual list that you check often, you won’t lose sight of these priorities.
So where can you put this list to make sure you check it regularly?
We’ve got you covered—we’ve created this list for you! Save this picture to your phone and use it as your lock screen. That way you’ll remember to say no to the distractions—especially the ones on your phone!
One last thing. Go easy on yourself. The point here is not to punish yourself or feel guilty when you fall back into these bad habits. The point is to catch yourself and refocus on what matters. We’re all works in progress here.