Effective entrepreneurship: The not to-do list

by Steli Efti

Every founder, every entrepreneur, everybody who works in a startup knows the burden of the to-do list. I love to-do lists. They are a beautiful thing. They help me get things done.

But recently I discovered the power of the not to-do list, and it's made such a huge difference for myself and our company that I want to share it with you.

I started my days with writing a to-do list. It helped me to become more productive, but there was always one challenge: Keeping that list focused. Over the course of each day, the list inevitably grew. 

I'm too ambitious to keep my to-do list small. I always feel like I can add one more thing, squeeze another commitment into my day, get just one more task done. 

The result? Overwhelmed and stressed

More often than not, this strategy led to stress and emotional turmoil. Sometimes my to-do list would have the exact opposite effect of what I want it to do: instead of creating more focus, it created more distraction. Instead of clarity, it created complexity.

majk

And then one day I went the other way.

The not to-do list

I now start every day with writing my not to-do list, rather than my to-do list. What goes on my not to-do list? All the things that:

  • I want to work on
  • I would like to work on
  • I think I need to work on
  • But today, I'm not going to take the time to do that. Not do, not think, not worry about today.

Once my not to-do list is done, I get start with my to-do list—which is very short and usually only contains one or two items.

Free up mental RAM

Every time when something new comes up, I put it on my day's not to-do list.

New idea?

Not to-do list.

Reminded of something I wanted to take care of?

Not to-do list.

Somebody else asks me to do something?

Not to-do list.

Something cool I want to try or learn more about?

Not to-do list.

This important thing that wants to be taken care of?

Here, let me put you on my not to-do list.

nottodolist

(This is what my not to-do list looks like today at the beginning of the day. Keep it simple.)

Distracted? Grasshopper mind?

Whenever I get distracted, whenever I lose my focus and my brain goes into attention deficit mode, I stop and look at my not to-do list.

Is that stuff on my not to-do list? If yes, I stop working on it immediately.

And if it is not on my not to-do list, I ask myself: should it be?

The result?

I don't know how long this little productivity hack will serve me, but what I do know is this: Since starting my days with my not to-do list, my productivity has gone up significantly!

Not to-dos for teams

We've now applied this to the entire business. We already had a product roadmap. But now we also have a anti-roadmap. The anti-roadmap contains all the things we're not going to do. 

If you plan on creating a not to-do list with your team, be prepared for some heated discussions. Because different people will have different priorities, and they'll be willing to fight to keep things they consider important off the not to-do list. But these kinds of discussions are important, because they lead to more clarity and align the vision of your product among different team members.

Managing complexity

At Close.io, we're only six people, but our little startup is growing fast, serving thousands of customers all over the world. As your company matures and scales, you'll have to be able to deal with a larger number of issues.

The more complicated your company becomes, the more important it is that you can filter out the noise, and focus on what matters.

What are your productivity hacks?

What helped you to become more productive? If you try the not to-do list, share what it did (or did not) do for you. I'd love to read your comments on this.

warrenbuffett

Update: A reader pointed out Warren Buffett's "Avoid At All Cost" list, which I think complements this post very well. It's not a daily list, but a long-term one.

  1. You list your 25 top goals and dreams that you want to accomplish.
  2. You select the five most important ones and plan how to accomplish them.
  3. You avoid working on the remaining 20 goals at all cost ... until you have accomplished your five most important ones! 

It's based on the same principle: don't let an avalanche of little tasks bury your big goals.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”—Warren Buffett

Thanks to Luke Thomas for reading and commenting on the draft for this.