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What’s on your not-to-do list?

January 19, 2010

by Shinsuke Uno

It seems that we all have one, a “to-do” list. What does the list do for you? It helps you to be more efficient. It helps you to get more things done. Right. More than what, though? More than yesterday, more than what your co-worker’s done, more than… So the list keeps growing driven by this need to outcompete everyone (including yourself!), and to keep up with this ever growing list, you need to be more efficient… It’s not so hard to see that a to-do list gets us trapped in a vicious cycle that keeps us occupied with what’s on the list. So, what’s really on the list, anyway?

In discussing the nature of to-do lists, Shinichi Tsuji, the author of a new book “Shinaikoto” (not doing) and a cultural anthropologist, points out that, for many of us, a to-do list really is a “have-to-do” list and not a “want-to-do” list. That’s how we have no time to be doing what we want to. How do we get out of this “have-to-do” vicious cycle so that we can spend time for the things NOT on the list? Tsuji suggests that we make a “not-to-do” list.

A “not-to-do” list may include, for example:

-Not to obsess with “not doing”: the curse of the “to-do” list, so to speak, is in its single-mindedness that doesn’t give you an option of not doing something in the first place. So, start with not trying too hard.
-Not to sacrifice sleep: this is different from sleeping for maintaining your performance. There is no need for a purpose for sleeping. We should sleep for the sake of sleeping (and, consider things you don’t do while sleeping that otherwise may be harmful to yourself and others).
-Not to force motivation: you may be demotivated because you can’t find the task at hand fulfilling or meaningful. Should you force yourself to be motivated or should you take your time to ponder about your current situation to figure out what’s bothering you?

According to Tsuji, a not-to-do list is based on the principle of subtraction. We have come to think too much in terms of addition (i.e. more this, more that, etc.) and to restore a balance in such a lopsided society, we need to remove some items from our to-do lists, that is, the things that are not essential for life. It is an attempt to take back the time we spend for things that keeps us occupied without truly enriching our lives. In a way, making a not-to-do list is an acknowledgement that being alive is a fundamentally time consuming, slow process and that we should let it take necessary time: by reconciling our lives with this organismal time, we may be able to find a new way of living.

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