The Not-To-Do List: Regain Focus By Killing Unimportant Tasks

Written by: Reinder de Vries, July 26 2015, in Guide, Q&A

“Your focus determines your reality.”

That’s what Qui-Gon Jinn tells young Anakin Skywalker in the first episode of the Star Wars saga, a blockbuster movie series. It’s sound advice the Jedi Master gives to Anakin. What does it mean?

Tales Of Extreme Focus

Somewhere on a mountain in Tibet, a monk meditates. Meditation is, paradoxically, the practice of extreme focus. Anyone who’s ever tried meditation knows that it is important to focus on the now, to be in the moment. When you’re meditating, random thoughts appear in your mind. Instead of focusing on the thought, trying to push it out, you focus on something else: your breathing, a “center”, or simply the emptiness around you.

Experienced programmers sometimes refer to something called the zone. It’s a zen-like state of mind, one that’s extremely focused. It’s a time when a programmer is mostly productive, literally thinking in code.

Musicians minds synchronize to a degree when they’re playing music together. A study published in BMC Neuroscience [1] reports findings on 8 guitarist, playing fusion-jazz together, synchronizing phase activity in their brains. By solely concentrating on music, their focus moves outside their minds and into the music – all in sync.

Caught In The Thick Of Thin

We humans are a bunch of busy people. Many of us have demanding and stressful jobs, family obligations, and responsibilities outside of work we’ve taken upon us. We want to see friends during our free time, need to find time to do sports; there’s rarely a time when we do nothing.

It’s not a surprise we get ill when we’re on holidays [2]. Our bodies pump adrenaline like mad during stressful times, so there’s no opportunity for our body to rest and repair itself. When the pressure is off, we get sick.

So what happens to that side project, your dream, that’s been lingering in your head for so long? You wanted to build an app of your own, a website, start a business, and work on an income on the side. It’s being pushed outside of your mind, it’s caught in the thick of thin, it’s out of focus.

Sometimes you juggle so many tasks: they overwhelm you. You lose focus, you can’t prioritize anything because everything seems urgent and important. In a desperate attempt to regain control, you try to get a hold of the Getting Things Done principles you learned some time ago. You miss, because your task list is so overwhelming there’s no point in reorganizing and prioritizing it.

Simply put, you’re drowning so fast in to-do’s, making even dreaming a luxury.

To The Rescue: The Not-To-Do List

OH YEAH! Welcoming to the fighting pit: the Not-To-Do List, ready to behead your to-do’s and completely eradicate work stress, unimportant tasks and faux-urgent interruptions.

It’s this: a list of things you’re not going to do. The list appears very counterintuitive: with so many things you have to do, how can you not do them?

The answer is simple: focus. The Not-To-Do List forces you to focus. It’s something different from prioritizing, because when you focus you can’t focus on anything else. You can prioritize from 1 to 3, from A to C, but you can’t divide focus in “more important” and “less important”.

Let’s look at some examples of Not-To-Do List items:

  • I’m not going to that work meeting, because the meeting topics don’t apply to me. (You could catch up with a co-worker to check if you missed something.)
  • I’m not going to bring back that book to the library, even when it’s late. I’ll take the small fine, and will bring it back when I’m in the neighbourhood.
  • I’m not going to respond to this email, simply because I’m out of time. When it’s really important, they’ll call or drop by. There’s a high chance they’ll just forget about it.

In the items, there’s a common pattern: you’re literally dropping some tasks. You’re not replacing them, not delegating them, you’re removing them from your task list. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that has consequences.

See, a lot of tasks have a dirty little secret: they try to appear important. Secretly, they’re other people’s problems and they want to be your problem. In order to succeed, they disguise themselves as important tasks. And they get away with it!

Dealing with tasks differently can result in a rich set of healthy new challenges. You may need to delegate some boring and cumbersome tasks to other people, which could mean you need money to pay them. You may need to update your talking skills, to parry “Thou must be present at any meeting!” remarks by your boss.


Our Dirty Little Secret

See, we have a dirty little secret of our own. Those pesky little to-do’s that creep up on us, say they’re important, when in fact they are not – they’ve got it coming!

When you’ve got your Not-To-Do List in your hand, you can laugh at them. They’re caught! You see right through urgent, important tasks. It’s their problem now, not yours.

Regaining focus and control is empowering. You can finally make time for those dreams of yours, and start with the first tangible steps. Those steps aren’t going to make themselves.

That’s what Qui-Gon Jinn meant when he said: “Your focus determines your reality.” Focus on the steps towards your goal, and you will get there. You will make your dream a reality.

[1] Brains swinging in concert: cortical phase synchronization while playing guitar

[2] Why we may fall ill when we’re on holiday

[3] The picture of the FUCK THAT mega coffee mug is a reminder to me, the writer of this article, to take some things with a grain of salt. If this offends you, so should you.

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Written By: Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is an indie app maker who teaches aspiring app developers and marketers how to build their own apps at He has developed 50+ apps and his code is used by millions of users all over the globe. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

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