Make Habits Stick with Two Better To-Do Lists - 52 Weeks of Habits52 Weeks of Habits


to don't list

We’re all familiar with to-do lists. They’re ubiquitous, you can get hundreds of apps for them, and every other blog about productivity tells you the importance of keeping one. They’re certainly valuable–they help us remember the dozens of different things we need to do at any given time, and help us get a lot more done than we would if we were sticking to rote memorization. When it comes to habit change, however, to-do lists fall short.

Sometimes a to-do list can be unclear. “Eat healthy,” “Be productive,” “Keep the house clean” all of these are pretty unclear. How do I know when I can check off “eating healthy” or “being productive”? How healthy do I have to be? How productive? They’re tasks that tend to sit on our lists for a long time but that we never do too much about simply because they’re so unclear. What’s much better is to have guidelines on how to do things that lead to what we ultimately want. These guidelines create two new types of “to-do” lists: “to-act” lists and “not-to-do” lists.

To-Act Lists

Both the to-act and not-to-do lists are extensions of the regular to-do lists, and fill in the gaps that it leaves behind. With many things that we would put on our to-do list we have to ask the question “okay, but what specific things will cause that to happen?” For the to-act list, let’s look at productivity.

You might put on your to-do list for the day “be productive,” but as I mentioned earlier that’s useless since it’s entirely unclear. Instead, we can break the idea of productivity down into specific actions we can take throughout the day that will result in being more productive. From about a month of quantifying my productivity, these are the things that I know lead to being more productive in my days:

  1. Exercising
  2. Doing the Rule of Three
  3. Sleeping between 7 and 8.5 hours
  4. Working away from my bedroom
  5. Intermittent Fasting
  6. No carbs for lunch
  7. and drinking a lot of water

So if I want to add to my “to-do” list to be more productive, I can instead add these actions to my “to-act” list, a separate list that’s less task focused:

  • Exercise this morning
  • Complete the rule of three
  • Go to sleep by 11
  • Stay on-campus to do work for 2 hours after class
  • Have a high protein/fat lunch
  • Drink at least 1 gallon of water

And while these are all strictly speaking “to-do” items, they’re better described as actions that support by productive goals. They’re not things that I “check off” in the same way as classwork, but rather beneficial lifestyle choices.

And what really helps them is having a…

To-Don’t List

While the to-act list is a refurbished to-do list in many ways, the to-don’t list (or not-to-do list) is something different entirely. The to-don’t list isn’t focused on short term tasks and goals, it’s focused instead on longer term aspirations and lifestyle changes that you want to make. In order to be more productive I might work outside of the house today, but there are also things I should be aware of that I want to not do.

I get the most benefit from my to-don’t list by printing it out and keeping it near my desk, or by always having it on the background of my computer to remind me of the things I’ve committed to myself not to do. I’ll add and subtract things occasionally, but the big ones right now for my health and productivity are:

  • Don’t oversleep
  • Don’t eat anything without nutritional value
  • Don’t leave anything on my mind
  • Don’t multitask
  • Don’t procrastinate
  • Don’t drink coffee
  • Don’t skip exercising

And you can of course tailor yours however you please. I find the to-don’t list to be a great reminder of the different habits I’m trying to maintain, and keep myself on track in case I start to slip on any of them. They’re also very motivating, because I know that everything on my to-don’t list is something that I used to do a lot of, and that I’ve since gotten over and can do without. As you develop more and more good habits, your to-don’t list of bad habits will continue to grow as well.



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