To DON’T do

Since this blog is about the art and science of living simpler, it seems like a lot of the readers (and writers) are fairly goal-oriented. ‘Simple living’ is more of a journey than a destination, so this pretty much makes sense.

This journey type of mindset implies goal setting, which I’m all about, of course—but the problem with a continual focus on goals is that we unintentionally orient our day to day living with tasks. We become task-oriented people instead of relationship oriented, and we end up equating a “good day” with whether we get a lot done.

I like to-do lists, and I make one near daily—I admit, I like checking things off (and come on, you know you’ve added something after you’ve done it just so you can check it off). But an issue arises when we focus all our energy, all our efforts towards these “to-do” tasks, because you know as well as I that we very rarely cross off an entire list in one day.

And does an unfinished to-do list make a bad day? Of course not. In fact, you could adjust your sails just a bit and scribble out a list of things you don’t plan on doing—and cross those things off when you succeed in not doing them. A to-don’t list. Perhaps your not doing them could equal a productive, thoughtful day.

Want to stop and smell the roses? Make a to-don't list.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, since my family and I are getting ready to travel for about six weeks. You know what it’s like when you’re prepping for a trip. You stop going to the grocery store so you can eat out the pantry and fridge, you start orienting your calendar towards the countdown departure date, and if you’re smart, you slowly start adding things to the suitcases as you do the laundry. (I don’t do that last bit, but it’s a lovely idea nonetheless.)

We’re in this phase right now, so what we’re not currently doing is at the forefront of my mind. And I’ve decided that it’s a good idea to do this more often in my regular life—to notice what I’m intentionally not doing just as much as what I’m getting done. I’m going to start make a to-don’t list more often.

Here’s part of my current to-don’t list:

• Don’t tackle larger house projects right now
• Don’t think about spring gardening
• Don’t set aside money for next Christmas (since our next holiday season will be decidedly unorthodox)
• Don’t be on a Whole 30
• Don’t stay up too late
• Don’t wake up too early
• Don’t sign up for a local farm co-op
• Don’t get involved in our homeschool co-op
• Don’t sign up the kids for spring sports
• Don’t empty my email inbox
• Don’t say yes to the thousand (well-meaning) requests sitting in my inbox
• Don’t try to understand Google Plus
• Don’t feel guilty about not planning one thing for Valentine’s Day (we’ll be on the road)
• Don’t work all hours of the day
• Don’t do everything I could possibly do to promote my upcoming book
• Don’t worry about planning our Big Trip
• Don’t keep Facebook open when I’m trying to write
• Don’t feel guilty about our daughter not having a birthday party this year
• Don’t volunteer at church
• Don’t get involved in a book club

And here’s the funny thing with writing this—my knee-jerk reaction is to justify a few of these to you. I want to explain to you why we’re not doing a farm co-op right now, or that we DO do some of these things sometimes. I want to make sure you know I do stuff. Which is totally and completely silly.

We get so wrapped up about Getting Stuff Done, or about defining our value in our accomplishments, our busyness. But is that really what life’s all about? Crossing off a to-do list isn’t a bad thing, but this isn’t the core of our life’s meaning, what really makes up the sum purpose of our days.

pooh sticks on the bridge

So notice what you don’t want to accomplish, just as much as you do. And if it’s hard for you to even think of what you don’t want to do, ask yourself if you’re trying to do too much—or, at least feel like you’re supposed to do more than what’s possible. Because it’s perfectly okay—no, it’s AWESOMELY okay—that you don’t do stuff. Really. Slow down and smell the roses, and if you’re too busy to get a whiff, it’s time to make a to-don’t list.

I’d love to hear what’s on your to-don’t list right now.

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. We only do birthday parties for the kids every other year, so I love the years when I don’t worry about planning a birthday party for one of my kids! On the off years, we do something special as a family, and on the party years, we have a larger party than we would normally do. It’s great!

    • I got a birthday party when I was 6, 10, and 14, same as my sisters. After that, I could have as many birthday parties as I wanted but I was responsible for planning them. 🙂 Family parties are actually more memorable and special to me than the parties where I got to invite lots of friends over.

  2. Love this idea and perspective. I also instinctually feel the need to justify to others why I might say no to something or not sign up for x, y and z. So silly!

  3. Oh, I have a LONG to-don’t list as well.. Don’t multitask. Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t get sucked into pointless arguments. Don’t say “yes” to every.single.thing. Don’t keep Facebook open {Hah!}when writing or working on projects.

    My challenge, however, is sticking to the “not-do” list. I feel guilty and like you, find I have to justify what I can no longer put on the “to-do” list:)

  4. Tsh-
    Such a great thought. I love the idea of being intentional about our “don’t dos.” Too often, I find myself carrying around some low level guilt about what I’m not doing. This framework is helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    • I completely agree with your comment! This post and the one Tsh recently wrote about interruptions to my day really resonated with me. Such good stuff.

  5. I have never formally written out my “To Don’t” list, but I love the concept. I was very open about my decision to NOT do anything with the garden for a year after my daughter was born. I struggle much more with seeing my husband say no to things . . . good, worthwhile things that I know part of him is itching to say yes to.

  6. We are in one of our busiest times – renovating my mom’s old townhouse to sell – on my don’t-do list: don’t pressure myself to do anything that isn’t essential for my family and my work – for now. This massive job should be finished this weekend. The end is in sight!

  7. Oh, I am such a list maker I haven’t even thought about the idea of a not-to-do list. I guess at the top of that list would be “don’t join every committee.” I’ve overcommitted to so many things at work and it’s stressing me out. I’m actually proud of myself that I was offered a leadership opportunity on one of them and I turned it down because I knew it would be too much. Thanks for sharing this and making us think about our lists from a different perspective!

  8. So good! I hear you on the temptation to justify our “nos” to others. I am in the midst of a more full season of life where I’ve had to say no more often than usual. I’m prone to people-please, so sometimes I get a little stressed about meeting others’ expectations.

    Thankfully, others have been really gracious with me. But this season has also been a good reminder that I don’t need to worry about doing it all and I’m not responsible for meeting everyone’s expectations anyway.

    And yes, I’ve totally written something down that I already did, just to cross it off 😉

  9. What an awesome idea! I’m making a to don’t list!

  10. I’m an avid list writer and love the idea of a ‘to-don’t’ list! I think my top two will be… Don’t have the laptop on when baby is awake and don’t re-schedule date nights!

  11. Tsh, your post this morning really inspired me! I even made a new list at ListPlanIt and gave you the credit (You can see it here: I hope you don’t mind. Great idea!

  12. I needed to read this today! Our family is getting ready to move this summer…but we’re still waiting to find out where. We’re used to moving, and forcing ourselves to limit our commitments as we get ready but because so much is up in the air this time we are not saying “no” enough. I need to remind myself that it’s ok if my 5 year old doesn’t play soccer this season (especially because he doesn’t really care either way) and I love the idea of writing all these things down in a “to-don’t” list!

  13. I belong to a group that meets once a month on character development. Our leader has us making to do lists with ONLY stuff we absolutely think we can accomplish. We are learning to have patience with ourselves and not pile on more that we would really be able to do

  14. I am a huge believer in To-Don’t Lists. I think the more we know how to do added to all that we have opportunity to do added to everything people ask us to do equals TOO MUCH.

    If you don’t deliberately cut somewhere, you will just shrivel up and die. And by you, I mean me.

    I had to chuckle when you said you felt the need to justify not being in a farm co-op right now. Most people don’t do farm co-ops and probably don’t know what that even is. I just think it’s so telling how we project external pressure onto ourselves sometimes, just because of what we THINK others with think of us.

    Great post. 🙂

  15. Haha, don’t try to understand Google +.

    I’ve had a mental To Don’t list for awhile now. I love the idea of writing it down.

  16. This post inspired me to write a short free verse poem of my To Don’t Do list. This is a beautiful thought, thank you sharing your Don’t Do list with us.

  17. Since winter seems to suck the life out of me, I’ve decided to skip ladies bible study and Awana for the kids until it’s warmer out. There’s only about a four hour break between church and these activities, and it can be really stressful to eat lunch, straighten up, make and eat supper, search for Awana vests and books, and oversee/help ten kids get ready and out the door in that short amount of time. It’s a break I REALLY need.

  18. I needed this today.

  19. My daughter turned 9 this year and she didnt have a birthday party either. No guilt. Enjoy the family travel.

  20. A “to-don’t list”?


  21. the “collective unconscious” continues to amaze me….at the moment I’m listless…

  22. Oh the justifying of things to others, I totally get this. I tend to worry what people will think when I say no or don’t say anything but really, most people are very gracious and get it themselves.
    We’re in a busy season with a possible move this summer/fall so there’s a lot I’m not doing and I’m learning to be okay with that.
    Thanks for the breath of fresh air!

  23. I don’t make “don’t do lists”, but lists for later! This year I decided to focus on just a few things, but my mind is constantly being bombarded by new ideas, projects and so on. And here comes my list for later; I put down all the things that I would like to do in the future, when time is right, so I don’t forget.
    In this way I can concentrate on the moment (daily lists, monthly lists and even a yearly list!).

  24. I needed to hear this today. I have in my head all of these things I think I SHOULD be doing (or what I think I should be doing compared to everyone else in the world) but having a to-don’t list is a great place to put all these things and free up my life for what I really want to do.

    One of my to-don’t’s is to not feel guilty about having a messy home in this season of my life. I have three kids 4 and under. Messy is a fact of life right now!

  25. Oh, this resonates. Right now, some of my don’t dos: Don’t fret and fuss so much. Don’t expect to get anything done on yet another snow day with three kids at home. Don’t feel guilty for cutting back on blog posting. Don’t make God so small. Don’t apologize for chasing ridiculous dreams. Don’t get peeved when your life coach takes things off your to-do list. Don’t multi-task so much…. Oh, I could do this all day!

  26. I needed to read this today, thank you! My to do list is always extensive (like everyone here), and I used to judge my days by whether I achieved it all or not. Lately though, I’ve tried to cut myself a little slack and if it’s just not happening, I go with it. I really like the concept of a ‘to don’t do’ list though 🙂

  27. Don’t clean the house before we move out this Saturday. That’s on my To-Don’t list, and I’m trying not to hate it. Both my husband and I are having health issues right now, and I am having to put aside the mantra ingrained into my brain “always leave things better than when you found them”. I also don’t get to indulge my people pleasing gene, and am trying not to imagine the statements that the home owner will probably say (“They didn’t even vacuum the carpet!”)
    Also on the To-Don’t list: Don’t fret.

  28. Wow, what a wonderful idea! I get so caught up in what I want to accomplish that I often either get overwhelmed by it and do nothing or end up missing the moments that really matter, like my prayer time or greeting my husband when he comes home from work.
    Thank you for this beautiful reminder.

  29. YES! Nail on the head here. Thank you, so much Tsh.

  30. What a refreshing post, thanks Tsh! You know, a book I’ve been reading recently (called “18 Minutes” by Peter Bregman) has a chapter about this, he calls it our “ignore list”. For me, one of the hardest things to NOT do, is to not read EVERY blog post online, or news, etc. Everything seems inspiring and useful, and it’s hard to not have the mindset that reading just “one more thing” will be the answer to a better life……information travels at such lightning speed these days and so accessible! Bregman writes “but our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself.” Yikes!

  31. We have implemented guideline for saying no for Saturday activities. Our reason is we believe our neighbors are out most important ministry, and we’ve learned that Saturdays are the best day to be available to share life with them. The problem is being involved in a few different groups gets us invited to lots of showers and parties…on Saturday of course. So we say no to non-neighbor Saturday invites. Well, mostly. We have created guidelines for when we should break our self-imposed rules, because there are some relationships we give priority to. Or course, I still feel guilt at times for declining invitations, but we as a family love not spending our Saturdays running from event to event.

  32. I wrote about this similar thinking last year ( (I like your name for it better 🙂 ).

    It has made such a difference in my perspective and productivity to create this list and keep it nearby.

  33. I am so thankful I’m not the only person in the planet who can add “Don’t feel guilty about our daughter not having a birthday party…” to her list. Because I do love her everyday despite the don’t list;) Thank you!

    Best wishes tomorrow!

  34. Wonderful concept. I’m getting better about saying yes to my gifts + passions…and delegating some of the other things (or letting them go completely).

  35. I am not busy. When I tell people they don’t really believe me, but it is true, and by design. I was a stay at home homeschooling mom. Now, I am an at home wife. No job- but we learned long ago to live without and I don’t need one. I don’t volunteer. I have. But it seems they can do without me. I don’t make plans with people I don’t care for- and who furthermore don’t care for me. Sadly, I live far from family so that is not too difficult. If, however, you are my friend I am loyal to you, and will do whatever it takes when I am needed. I will listen to your troubles and give advice when I am asked. I do read. I garden. I walk. I make simple meals and keep a simple house. I am happily married. It is not a bad life. ps, my kids did fine without bday parties, phones, and all the toys and distractions. we traveled, went to museums, read gobs of books, and talked all night long. They just want your time and attention. I suppose we were unschooling, but they are functioning adults. It is about being content, and it takes a long, long time to learn.

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