Double Your Focus with this Productivity Trick

The To-Do List is Dead.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

We’re well into 2018 now, but thinking about the beginning of this year elicits memories of ads for gym memberships, healthy eating, and nicotine patches. It seems we all want to get in shape, eat healthier, and quit those bad habits.

For many, though, the new year wasn’t about eliminating unhealthy habits from our lives, but more about increasing our productivity.

Maybe 2018 is the year you finally write your book, launch that business, or accomplish those “life goals” you promised yourself you’d hit by the time you were forty.

The point is, we all have goals and ambitions. Whatever our next big project may be, the motivation is the same: be more productive so we can produce our best work.

But if you’re like me, February may have found you falling off the wagon, struggling for motivation to continue after the excitement of a new routine wears off. Research suggests that only 17% of people are still keeping their new year’s resolution after 6 weeks.

So how will you make 2018 your best year yet? How will you maintain that productivity after it’s no longer sexy?

Well, if you were to ask some of the most prolific creative minds on the planet for their advice, they’d tell you that you need focus.

But how do I get focused?

Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jony Ive — those masters of productivity and management who consistently produce some of the most groundbreaking work on the planet and lead their companies in bold new directions are all masters of focus.

Jony Ive even stepped down from his position leading Apple’s product design for a few years just so he could focus on the monumental task of designing Apple Park, the new spaceship-esque corporate campus.

It’s as if they have an endless supply of energy (and more than 24 hours in a day, to boot).

How are they able to produce such great work and get so much done? How can they run their companies, manage people, and strategize about the future, while still having time to raise kids, spend time with family, pursue personal projects, learn Mandarin, and program artificial intelligence assistants on the side? (And you thought your life was busy).

The simple truth is this: the most creative and successful people in the world don’t focus on what to do — they focus on what not to do.

That seems like an odd statement at first.

These guys have enormous pressure and responsibility resting on their shoulders. They have companies to lead. They have to produce. They have to innovate. They just must be ruled by the never-ending to-do list, right?


The most prolific creators and thinkers of our day (or of any time in history, really), know incredibly well what not to do.

They have laser-focus on problems they’re trying to solve and goals they’re trying to hit…and the only way to maintain that focus is to have incredible mental clarity on what they’re not going to do, what they’re not going to waste their time on.

This might sound negative or defeatist, but in reality, it’s incredibly wise advice.

By knowing what they’re about, they are instantly able to filter out all of the noise and can make decisions much more quickly.

When new opportunities arise, they don’t get distracted. Unlike most of us who have our head on a swivel and get distracted by anything shiny or appealing, these masters of productivity know how to filter our distractions, make decisions quickly, and move on. That’s the secret of how they’re able to accomplish so much.

The lesson?

If anything doesn’t align with the priorities and goals you’ve established for yourself, ruthlessly eliminate it from your life.

A personal example: I used to spend a ton of time on social media. My entire day would be eaten up by checking feeds, updating statuses, and getting distracted by the latest viral post. But then I realized that while this may seem appealing, and is endlessly (if mindlessly) entertaining, it doesn’t fit my goals or contribute to the bottom line.

Thus, it’s gone from my life. I hardly check social media feeds at all anymore. Facebook’s data scandal aside, it just doesn’t align with where I want to go in life.

Same thing goes for my inbox: I’ve learned that the world won’t end if I don’t reply to that seemingly urgent email within a few hours, so I’ve given up on hitting “refresh” every 10 minutes. I now only open my email 2–3 times a day (and at regularly scheduled times), so I don’t have to waste time and focus on something so trivial.

Instead, I get to focus on things that matter and align with my goals.

Writing informational blog posts, on the other hand, helps me grow one of my businesses and attract more people to the services we offer, so I have dedicated time to doing just that. I have implemented structure and routine into each week so that I can constantly crank out new content, attract new leads, and see my business grow.

The Power of Saying “I Don’t”

In a research study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, over 100 people were split into two different groups and asked if they wanted something tempting, like a scoop of ice cream.

The only difference between the two?

One group was forced to respond with the phrase “I can’t,” while the other was forced to respond with the phrase “I don’t.”

After repeating these phrases, each subject answered a set of questions completely unrelated to the study. Once they finished answering their questions, the subjects went to hand in their answer sheet, thinking that the study was over.

As each subject walked out of the room and handed in their answer sheet, they were offered a complimentary treat. The student could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a healthy granola bar. Unbeknownst to the subjects, their snack choices were recorded.

Something surprising happened.

The people who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time, while the people who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time.

Turns out this simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.

The lesson of this study is clear: it’s powerful to have a pre-defined set of rules that will dictate your behavior in a certain situation.

In other words, to have a “Not To-Do List.”

So, if you want 2018 to be your best creative year yet, start by deciding who you are. Start by deciding what your goals are, and by prioritizing what you will and won’t do this next year.

Make a Not To-Do List.

Sure, decide what you’ll say “yes” to — know where your priorities and goals are. But don’t be afraid to say no to those activities and opportunities that don’t align with your goals.

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