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Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Feb 16, 2022

Why you need a “to-don’t” list (and 4 ways to make the system work for your personality)

By Sara Singer

High School Special Education

Why you need a “to-don’t” list (and 4 ways to make the system work for your personality)

By Sara Singer

The 25/5 Rule.

Warren Buffett once offered his personal pilot, Mike Flint, some time to discuss his career and goals for the future.

Buffet advised Flint to think of 25 things he would like to accomplish in the near future. Then, Buffett asked him to circle his top 5 goals on that list.

He then asked Flint what he was going to do about the other 20 goals that weren’t circled. Flint responded, “They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

Buffett gave a surprising response: “These other 20 goals are your main distractions. Avoid them at all costs.”

In the productivity world, Buffet’s advice is known as the 25/5 rule. This rule teaches us that the things that distract us most aren’t things that waste our time.

Rather, the tasks that are most likely to distract us are the ones that would help us accomplish a peripheral goal, but don’t move us towards our top priorities.

As teachers, we have so many different goals and priorities, goals that we would like to achieve, initiatives that we are asked to take on, policy changes that we need to implement. It can feel overwhelming to look at all the things that we could do to help students learn, or even all the things that we need to do, and realize that there just isn’t enough time in a day or week or year to do it all. If we try to do it all anyway, our attention will be pulled in too many different directions to do any of it well.

This is where the To-Don’t List comes in. Since we can’t do it all, we need to make sure that we intentionally choose which tasks we will absolutely complete – and which will never get done.

What is a To-Don’t List?

A written “To-Don’t” List is exactly the same as a written To-Do List: it is a plan and a commitment for how you are going to spend your time and energy for the day or week.

It outlines the tasks and activities that are a distraction hazard.

By reviewing your “To Don’t” List regularly, you can make sure that you aren’t wasting your time on tasks that aren’t taking you in the right direction.

How to write a To-Don’t List

Method #1 – The Time Wasters

For those who find themselves easily distracted during valuable time blocks, especially with mindless activities like scrolling through Instagram, tidying, and easy grading, a To-Don’t List can be a list of activities that you are not going to partake in until after your other goals have been completed or until you leave school.

These kinds of tasks that don’t require a lot of brainpower often creep into our day because we aren’t taking real breaks that replenish us. If you find yourself reaching for your phone often to distract you, try out a two-column To-Do and To-Don’t List, and make sure you add some soul-nourishing activities to your To-Do List.

Method #2 – Not Today!

If you have trouble letting go of your lower priority tasks, put them on a list “To Do, But Not Today.”

I love this style of To-Don’t list when my classroom feels messy, I’m a week behind on grading, and I have important deadlines coming up. I know that when I need to sit down and get focused work done, I might be tempted to knock out the smaller, easier tasks that feel so urgent!

Rather than saying that I will never do them, I tell myself that maybe I’ll get to them eventually, but I am absolutely not allowed to work on them today.

The “To Do, But Not Today” list reduces my anxiety because it allows me to log and acknowledge the tasks that are on my mind. I know that I can come back to them any day if I still want to.

Sometimes, when I come back to the tasks on my “To Do, But Not Today” list, the tasks don’t seem so urgent anymore. Once you can recognize that (and work up the courage), you can put them on a “Never Gonna Happen” list.

A “Not Today” list I jotted in school one day. These were all things that were on my mind, but not as important as the IEP draft I had to write by the end of the week.

Method #3 – May Do, Must Do

“May Do, Must Do” lists aren’t just for students! They help me make time for fun activities (or lower priority tasks) while keeping my focus on the items with a deadline.

I especially love to make these lists on Sundays or other days off school when I have so much I could get done, and the thought of an entirely open day makes me want to do all the things. Based on the amount of time I have and my priorities, I’ll list 3-5 things that I Must Do, and put everything else (including fun things) on the May Do List.

If I finish my Must Do’s, I can choose whatever I want off the May Do list to work on, but I count my day a success if all the Must Do’s are completed. I try not to allow myself to feel guilty for not getting something on the May Do List done because after all, I chose not to prioritize it.

A May Do, Must Do list for a Sunday. My May Do list has options of work tasks as well as things I could do for fun.

Method #4 – The Long Term Goals

Long term goals are the intended use of the 25/5 rule – and the hardest and most powerful way to implement it.

Think about all the things that you would like to achieve in the next year, or the next 3 years. Then, be ruthless and choose only the top 5 things that you will actually shoot for.

Refer back to that list often when you are thinking about what to work on or what new commitments you are going to take on.

When your principal asks you to join a new committee or sell your prep period, go back to your list and see if that choice aligns with your top 5 goals. If it’s not something that is immediately going to advance you towards that goal, say no to it, so that you can say yes to the things that will move the needle.

An example of Top 5, long-term goals. If your focus is on working less and improving the English curriculum, you should say no when asked to help align the math lessons to the new standards.

Yes, you need to write it down!

You should write out your To-Don’t List – digitally or on paper – for the same reasons you keep a written To-Do List.

First, so you don’t forget something on it, and second, because the act of writing them down makes you more committed. Finally, writing them down can help relieve anxiety for some people. It also provides some accountability if you look back at it after a block of work time and make sure that you spent your time the way you intended.

No matter how you are structuring your “To-Do” and “To-Don’t” lists, planning ahead and aligning your day-to-day activities with your long-term goals is a powerful way to make continual progress towards whatever priorities you care about most.

Sara Singer

High School Special Education

Sara is a high school special education teacher on Chicago’s South Side. She loves to co-teach and support students with disabilities in the general education classroom. She is passionate about equity and creating rigorous, student-centered curricula. A Boston native and...
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