How avoiding things can improve your life.
What's on your to-do list right now? Do you even have an official to-do list? Who really has the time to keep an updated, ongoing list of tasks? The ever-elusive to-do list has spawned an entire category of task-tracking applications for your smartphone, but the list itself has yet to be reimagined. If to-do lists just aren't cutting it for you, I suggest you give the "I don't..." list a try. It's probably rare that viewing something from a negative perspective has a positive impact, but this is such a case.
I recently sat at my desk with a pen and notebook to break the chains of the to-do list. The result was the "I don't..." list. Every bullet point began with "I don't...," and the list included proclamations ranging from "go a week without texting my mom" to "sleep fewer than seven hours a night." As I sat back in my chair and looked at my list, it seemed doable. It seems a lot easier to phrase my ideas as things to be avoided rather than things to be tackled. If I'm being honest, I'm really good at avoiding things. This list spoke to me.
A list of things you don't do, unlike a to-do list, never has to be revised (although it can be edited). If I want to get my homework done on time, I just have to remember that "I don't turn in assignments late." This one bullet point covers every assignment I could ever possibly have, and my daily reminder list isn't a cluttered list of problem sets and essays (which would probably just make me too anxious to work at all). Sure, I still have a place for keeping track of due dates, but it's not sitting on my desktop staring me down all day like a bad omen.
An "I don't..." list does not attempt to define your life by your tasks. By putting yourself in every bullet point, you're allowed to evaluate what matters most to you and how that contributes to who you are. You wouldn't put "forgive Shannon" on your to-do list, but you might include "never go to bed angry at a friend" on your "I don't..." list. My list forced me to stop thinking about myself as a task-accomplishing machine and to stop defining my success according to checked boxes. Like a to-do list, my "I don't" list includes points that are at a higher priority than others. For example, I might let "I don't sleep fewer than seven hours a night" go by the wayside in order to fulfill "I don't abandon a friend when they need help," but I don't have to feel like I'm losing part of who I am by not being able to check something off of my list at the end of the day.
Lastly, this to-do list alternative gives you room for a more healthy self-care routine. No one in good conscience would put "watch an episode of 'House of Cards'" on their to-do list. Even if they did, it would be listed below their work and school tasks and sit unaccomplished. But ceaseless task-tackling is unhealthy for everyone. No one is a machine. My "I don't..." list includes "I don't work into exhaustion." Working a healthy self-care regimen into my life through my "I don't..." list has had tremendous effects on my overall wellbeing and outlook on life. I've realized that no one should feel trapped by their tasks or overwhelmed to the point of powerlessness. Mental and physical health should come first, but you shouldn't have to view caring for yourself as a task.
I've never been one to offer life advice, seeing as my life is really just rolling day-by-day. I will, however, stand by the "I don't..." list as a valuable step toward a happier, healthier life. If nothing else, it can help free you from the trap of a task-oriented, stressful existence. If you're unsure of how to start your "I don't" list, I'll give you a freebie: "I don't write to-do lists."