How to Reclaim Your Focus by Saying ‘No’

Are you trying to take on absolutely everything on your to-do list? Perhaps sometimes you fall into a trap of trying to please everyone and never saying “No” to anything?

If so, you need to realize a simple fact: what actually separates high achievers from ordinarily lazy people is not the number of ambitious things that a person attempts to do; but rather the ability to say “No” to all the non-essential stuff so you can focus on what really matters.

Saying “No” can sometimes be the hardest thing to say. And hearing “No” can sometimes be equally as difficult. But it could be the single most important factor in determining your productivity.


Focusing on the most important things without neglecting everything else

I personally like to define the word “focus” as the ability to say, “No,” to every interruption.

While it’s good to keep your life organized and have hundreds of tasks stored in your to-do app or paper organizer, it’s imperative to focus on only a few projects, a few tasks at hand each day and to say “No” to everything else.


But I have so much on my plate right now, how can I ever choose just a few things to focus on and not neglect the rest?


You gotta have an effective workflow. It might look something like this:


not-to-do-list focus workflow chart
A workflow like this should make it easy for you to keep track of literally everything that’s happening in your life, but also allow you to focus on the most essential projects at a time.

It’s great to have a 33,000 foot view of all the stuff you’d like to do in your life. It’s also good to eventually do all that miscellaneous stuff you need do. But never allow the miscellaneous stuff to jeopardize your productivity on a given day. It happened to me. I used to schedule non-essential to-dos on specific due-dates and give them as high as a second priority, effectively skewing my view of what was really important on those days.

You might go as far as scheduling only what’s really essential and keeping the other misc. things in a “It’d be nice to do” category:


Or simply utilize TaskLabels’ ability to set priorities (priorities). A good rule of thumb is to pick 3 things that you absolutely need to get done each day and prioritize those, then get them done. The rest should be optional:



The Not-To-Do List: Saying ‘No’ to  time wasters and to anything that’s not important.

Yes, creating a “Not-to-do” list is actually a real thing and it can be deadly effective. More effective than an actual to-do list, even.

‘Not-to-do’ lists can  give your daily performance a huge boost. The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do. Thus, by making a “not-to-do” list you could magically free up loads time.

Before you create your “not-to-do” list, you need to first recognize the activities that are detrimental to your overall efficiency.

Many of those activities may, in fact, feel seemingly productive when you’re in the moment, but are actual threats to your productivity:


  • Answering all messages
    (It may feel like: “I’m a reliable person! I stay on top of all my communication.”
    Actually is: The world won’t stop if you don’t reply to every message extensively. Be selective and reply to more important messages first. Put off non-essential replies or set up an auto responder).
  • Being hung up over the details
    (It may feel like: “I’m so detail oriented! Not one single mistake will get by me. I’m gonna get this one absolutely perfect.”
    Actually is: Are those details going to matter 1 year from now? 5 years from now? Again, what seems to be important in the moment, usually is not going to make a bit of a difference to the big picture.)
  • Constantly checking e-mail
    (It may feel like: “Let’s get busy! There might be something important sitting in my inbox.”
    Actually is: E-mail is not always urgent and important. So quit checking your email every five minutes. If time management masters like Tim Ferriss (and many others) can manage to only batch-check their e-mail 2 times a day, so can you.)


We’ve just mentioned Tim Ferriss (the author of the bestselling book “The 4-hour Workweek”). Here’s his “Not-to-do” list:


1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers.

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.

4. Do not let people ramble.

5. Do not check e-mail constantly — “batch” and check at set times only.

6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers.

7. Do not work more to fix being too busy.

8. Do not carry a “Digital Leash” 24/7.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.


We’ve found it to be a solid “not-to-do” list, it can certainly serve as an inspiration to start creating one of your own.

Saying ‘No’ is quite an art. It’s a topic for a whole book, but it’s relatively easy to actually get started with and you’ll soon find how easy it is to free up your time and stay focused. Unless you’re overwhelmed by all the clutter you’ve already accumulated in your life. If that’s the case, read this post.

Once you are more selective about what projects you want to focus on, you might really benefit from the technique called time blocking. We’ve previously written a blog post about it too. See how you can embrace the power of paper and a mobile app to plan your next day.

And if you haven’t done so already, download TaskLabels and start creating to-do lists and not to-do lists!