Switch your “to do” list for a “do less” list

words Chris Griffiths

Our days and weeks are filled with things to do. Projects to complete, goals to achieve, and tasks to tick off. With an abundance of “new year, new me” posts filling up our timelines, we tend to focus on all the things we should be doing to make our lives better.

While self-improvement is a noble cause, we often overestimate how much we can achieve in a moment of heightened motivation, and then end up beating ourselves up when we don’t ultimately follow through. That’s why learning to switch your “to do” list for a “do less” list might just be the perfect way to give your wellbeing a boost, all while staving off the guilt of quitting resolutions soon after making them.

do less list

It’s important to understand that up to 95% of our behaviour is ruled by habit. In other words, many of the choices we make (positive or negative) are completely unconscious. In their simplest form, habits are behaviours which we repeat often enough that they create neural pathways in the brain. And eliminating bad habits can be as effective as creating new ones when it comes to changing your behaviour. You might think of this in the same way you would defrosting your windshield on a cold day, or gritting the road when it’s icy, these actions then pave the way for forward motion. The first step to creating an effective “do less” list is figuring out what’s standing in your way and seeing if it can be solved by doing less (rather than doing more).

For example, if you’re frustrated at not getting enough done in working hours, you might be tempted to start working in the evenings and on the weekends, too – but you need to interrogate whether this is really the best course of action. Working more might ultimately lead to burnout and this will have a knock on effect on the quality of your work, as well as your mental health, to boot. There’s a famous quote commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” While our initial instinct might be that hours worked equals productive output, on inspection you might just find the opposite is true. I know what you might be thinking, “Well, I can’t achieve more work by doing less, can I?” Well, actually, maybe you can…

Multiple studies have shown that daydreaming is linked to enhanced creativity, productivity and problem solving skills. Spending more time daydreaming and less time working will be like sharpening your axe, enhancing your thinking and allowing you to get more done in less time. This kind of strategic outlook is a prime example of how doing less can help you achieve more. If you’re looking to improve your attention, you might decide to spend less time on your phone rather than more time meditating. If you can’t keep up with social events, you might decide to spend less time people-pleasing rather than more time calendar-juggling. The list goes on and on – (but with a bit of effort, you can make it shorter!).

Our society might be productivity-obsessed, but learning how to do less of the stuff which hinders us clears the way for new, positive traits. To quote Tim Ferriss: “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” The modern world is so full of noise and our always-on culture leaves little time for us to pause and reflect. Ultimately, doing less is what allows us to remove the clutter from our lives and hone in on the stuff that really matters. So, instead of feeling defeated and ultimately apathetic after bailing on a list of overly-ambitious resolutions, why not make a “do less” list instead? The results might just be more transformative than you think.

Written by Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott, authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook. Chris is also a keynote speaker, and founder of productivity and mind mapping app, ayoa.com.

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