A Reverse To-Do List: Why What You Say NO to Matters More Than You Think

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reverse to-do list- Jessica LawlorWe’re nearly two full months into 2015. How are you doing with the goals and intentions you set?

It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day, forgetting about those lofty goals and ambitions we were so excited about just seven short weeks ago.

Back on January 1, I chose three powerful words to guide my year: light, choice and possibility.

While I’ll admit, I haven’t been the best about keeping a couple of the words top of mind, I’m really proud of the strides I’ve made toward one word, in particular.


A couple of weeks ago, I gchatted my friend and accountability partner Sara Frandina and said the following:

“Can I just #humblebrag for a second about how proud I am that I am actually guarding my time and energy like I promised myself I would in 2015? I’ve said no to three things today.”

Part of selecting the word ‘choice’ for the year had a lot to do with protecting my energy and putting myself first. I felt I spent a lot of time in 2014 doing things I wasn’t insanely excited about out of guilt, commitment or striving to constantly please everyone in my life.

To put it bluntly, I was exhausted and burned out.

I took on projects I wasn’t head over heels about. I went to events I really had no interest in attending. I said yes to too many coffee meetings or lunch dates that I wasn’t excited to show up for. I packed my calendar with stuff, every hour of the day, every day of the week. On and on.

So, in 2015, I said, ENOUGH. Something has to give. In order to be my best self, I need to DO LESS.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

After reading Alicia from Jaybird Blog’s awesome post titled Choose Less, Do More last week, I shared with her something I’ve been doing that has truly helped me keep my goal of remembering that I always have a choice.

I’m keeping a running list of all of the things I’ve said no to so far this year.

The purpose for keeping this list or even sharing this list with you isn’t meant to say, “Look how great I am and look at all these cool opportunities I’ve said no to.” No. Not at all.

Instead, the list is a constant reminder to myself that I always have a choice. WE always get to choose how we spend our time.

When I shared this idea with Alicia, she responded, “I love the idea of keeping a running list. It’s almost like a reverse to-do list.”

That really struck me.

A reverse to-do list.

So here’s my “reverse to-do list” if you will, a list of the things I’ve respectfully declined to better protect my energy:

  • Participating in a course
  • Speaking to a group that I love, but one that would have required a 3.5 hour commute roundtrip
  • Attending an event
  • Several freelance projects that weren’t great fits for me (however, I did pass them on to a fellow awesome solopreneur- good karma!)
  • Another speaking opportunity, this time more locally
  • A board position

As you can see, the list is not massive. It’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s meant to be powerful.

The list is simply a reminder of the progress I’ve made. This time last year, I would have found a way to complete all of the above, with a smile on my face, but secretly stressing and panicking on the inside, leaving little time for the things I love and the things that fill me with joy.

Something important to note about the list is that several of the above events and opportunities I WANTED to say yes to. They are either things I enjoy doing or projects I enjoy taking on. However, after surveying my time, availability and keeping my big goals for the year at the forefront, these particular items didn’t align, so I had to decline.

It’s hard at first to say no.

It feels uncomfortable.


I have an irrational fear that if I say no to opportunities, the opportunities will stop showing up.

But that’s not the case.

Like anything, practice makes permanent.

The more you say no, the easier it becomes. I still cringe a little before I have to write that “I’m sorry, but I can’t commit at this time. Thanks so much for thinking of me!” email, but each time it does get a little bit easier.

What do you think? Do you have a reverse to-do list? Share one thing you’ve said NO to lately that you’re proud of in the comments below.

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  • I have to say, this post is a great reminder to all of us who have a hard time saying no. When it comes to a work setting I am always willing to say “yes”, taking on more responsibility because I’m a team player. For instance, this year alone with a new job I started only in November I’ve already joined two committees, have a speaking engagement set up AND I’m running an entire event (our work’s biggest fundraiser of the year, gulp!) However, I am proud of myself for saying no to a few things this year — like playing in another indoor soccer league and spending money on trips I can’t afford. I’m slowly, but surely, learning. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Thanks girlfriend! I still have a hard time saying no, for sure, but the list is making me feel more powerful and in control.

      Yikes- it sounds like you’re getting quite busy, but it also sounds like it’s the things you WANT to focus on right now…your new job and career. Similarly, that’s awesome that you’re saying no to other things that aren’t serving you right now.

      Way to go, my love! xox

  • I love this idea. While I have a mental list, I think writing it down in my journal would help emphasize the power of “no”–and the reciprocal power of “yes.” Remembering that you always have a choice about where to direct your energy is powerful in so many parts of life. Thanks for the shoutout, and glad 2015 is treating you well!

    • Writing it down has been powerful! Sure, I can try to remember it all, but it’s not as impactful. When I look at that list, my memory is jogged of the exact opportunity and I’m reminded of WHY I said no and how that decision is helping me get closer to my goals. Thanks for the inspiration here! xox

  • Great post! I’ve had the same experience this year, and I know several other women who have, too — who have been saying “no” more since the New Year and now have more time for the things that matter to us.

    The hard thing is, we often doubt ourselves when we say no. Today I turned down a potential client, and I’m asking myself, Should I have taken them up on their offer? It’s easy to feel that doubt because we don’t know what’s coming next, we’re not certain a better client will come along, even if we *think* it will. It’s only in retrospect, when you land that better client or finish a big project because you gave yourself time to work on it, that you realize what a great service you did for yourself by saying no.

    I love the idea of a reverse to-do list! xo

    • I love your recent post that explained how you’re protecting your time, too! 🙂

      It’s awesome to have great opportunities, but it’s so important to me this year to feel energized and like my best self.

  • I love this post and this idea. I imagine that in reading it you must feel so SPACIOUS and that’s a great way to feel! It’s also a reminder of all of the amazing opportunities you have coming your way (nice for times when you need a little confidence boost), and the power that you have to say no so you can focus on your favorite things — and give of yourself in a quality way to those things you consciously choose.

    I’m definitely going to remember this! Great example of self care!

    • Thank you! I definitely do feel spacious and as you know, that was one of my goals for the year 🙂 (Thanks for helping me with my words!)

  • Great idea Jess – reverse list. This is an interesting way to see the things we say no to.
    Earlier this month I had to say no to a meeting where I would have received a job offer like my previous role. I explained the owner that while I appreciate the offer, I chose another path for myself. However I did refer someone else to him. So, win-win. 🙂

    That´s unbelievable: I also have the same rational fear and guilt, that if I say no, opportunities will disappear. At the same time I feel stressed for having too much on my plate.

    This January I promised myself that I would work with people I admire and like, that I would take on projects I like and feel excited to start and that I will stop myself from accepting things I am not necessarily interested in. So far, so good.

    I´ll keep in mind your reverse list idea. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much, Corina! I’m really loving this new approach toward how I spend my time and energy.

      Good for you for recently saying no. I bet you felt awesome afterward. And referring others is always a win 🙂 Good karma, for sure!

  • Have you considered cloning yourself? 🙂

    I have to give you more props than you’re giving yourself because I know the feeling of wanting to do eeeeverything and trying desperately to make everything happen. Way to go!

    I either don’t say no to things or I don’t get many offers. Hmm. Perhaps it’s that I often create my own opportunities (adventures, trips, plans, to-do lists, projects) and then try to rope others in. haha. It seems I might be the one people have learned to say no to! Uh oh…

    • I HAVE considered cloning myself, YES. 🙂 (Don’t I wish)

      Thanks so much for the props! It’s not easy, but I’m telling you, with every ‘no’ I feel really good and more important, really strong.


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  • SM Scott

    I said no to the boss’s barbecue. Everyone else was going so I was the obvious odd one out. I felt divided because knew I should go but just didn’t have the energy for socialising. So much we do out of duty when when need to care for ourselves. I’m so glad I said no and took the time to recharge my batteries.

    • Wow! Way to go. That must have been a tough one for sure, but I’m so glad you took the time for yourself to recharge. Keep it up!

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