We’ve been taught that if we want more — money, achievement, vitality, joy, peace of mind — we need to do more, to add more to our ever-growing to-do list. But what if we’ve been taught wrong? What if the answer to getting more of what we want isn’t addition at all, but subtraction?
As it turns out, evidence supports that if we want to ramp up our productivity and happiness, we should actually be doing less. David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work, found that we’re truly focused on our work a mere six hours per week, which starkly contrasts our collective buy-in to the 40-hour workweek. When you stop doing the things that make you feel busy but aren’t getting you results (and are draining you of energy), then you end up with more than enough time for what matters and a sense of peace and spaciousness that constant activity has kept outside your reach.
As people with full lives — kids, careers, friends, passions, logistics, and more — how can we apply the wisdom of doing less to give ourselves more time and alleviate stress without jeopardizing our results?
We need to identify what not to do. But this determination can’t be random. It must be methodical and evidence-based. Through my work with women navigating the dual vocations of entrepreneurship and motherhood, I’ve created a surprisingly simple exercise to help individuals decide what activities on their to-do list bring them the most value, and which they can stop doing. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, lengthwise.
Step 2: Decide on an area of your life or work where you’d like to have better results and less stress. For example, perhaps you want to expand your thought leadership.
Step 3: On the left-hand side, list the tasks or activities you do in that area of your work or life. As an aspiring thought leader, you might list attending conferences, pitching organizations for speaking opportunities, writing new articles, reading and researching, and so on.
Step 4: On the right-hand side, make a list of your biggest “wins” in that area, like a speaking gig, a presentation you really nailed at work, or a pitch that was accepted at a major publication. This can often be a difficult step for some people. We have not been culturally conditioned to celebrate ourselves, so often, folks will draw a blank when listing their “wins.” Any result you’ve gotten (either one time or repeatedly) that was positive can go on this list. Don’t get caught up in listing the “right” things. Just list what comes to you.
Step 5: Draw a line connecting each of your biggest wins to the activity or task that was most responsible for that result. Reading and researching, for instance, were essential to getting your pitch accepted for publication, so connect these two together.
Step 6: Circle all the activities and tasks on the left side of your paper that have been responsible for your big wins. Look at what’s left. Whatever isn’t circled is something that you need to either stop doing completely, significantly minimize or delegate if it absolutely must be done. For instance, if you discover that travelling for conferences once a month isn’t directly contributing to any wins, it’s time to set that aside or at least cutback.
This same approach can be used to determine where to do less in other areas of your life. For instance, if you’re looking to connect more with your children, you might list a few specific memories or “wins” when you really felt like you were being the best parent you could, such as singing silly songs with your preschooler while folding the laundry on a Sunday morning or when your preteen bared their soul to you and you felt so honoured by how safe they felt to tell you the hard stuff.
Now think about the tasks you do on a regular basis: laundry, making lunch, reminding your kids to do their schoolwork, checking off committee items for the PTA, making sure everyone has clothes that fit, and scheduling paediatrician appointments. While these tasks may need to be done, this exercise can give us permission to spend less time on these activities. Often the things we think we “must” do are simply because we always have done them or others around us do them and we think we should, too. Such a perspective creates unnecessary stress when we do these tasks late, make errors, or ask for help. Maybe instead of serving on the PTA, you can just attend the occasional meeting — or follow up with another parent who regularly attends. Perhaps you can set up a system where your children are in charge of making sure their schoolwork is done by a particular time each day, rather than reminding them yourself. On the other hand, if you discover that making lunch with your preteen provided that opportunity for them to initiate a heart-to-heart, maybe that’s something you’d like to keep on your list.
Repeat this exercise for as many areas of your life that you’d like to enhance through subtraction. Be ruthless. And don’t forget to consider what brings you joy. Not only does happiness make you at least 12% more productive, but it’s also what makes life worth living in the first place.
Life is not about racking up a list of accomplishments. What can you stop doing to make more time for yourself, make more time for joy, and use your time more meaningfully? The next time you set a goal or decide you want to improve upon an area of your life — or simply alleviate some of the pain that area is causing you — remember to go for subtraction instead of addition. Revel in the joy of doing less.
This article was originally written by Kate Northrup, the best-selling author of Do Less and Money: A Love Story. Her digital company helps ambitious women light up the world without burning themselves out. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.