How Doing Less Helps You Get More Done


There is a general belief that productivity and organization go hand in hand. And these days, it's common to see people surround themselves with a flurry of online calendars, smartphone apps, and other mechanisms to stay on track in their lives.

But the reality is that for most people, the "infrastructure" they use to stay organized can be a source of stress in and of itself. Why? Because many use all of these systems in an attempt to achieve everything, when that's an unrealistic goal. (See also: How to Create a Reasonable To-Do List)

In the Harvard Business Review Guide to Getting the Right Work Done, the authors argue that we must avoid trying to do more than we are capable:

The idea that we can get it all done is the biggest myth in time management… there's no way any of us are going to accomplish everything we want to. Face it: You're a limited resource. On one hand, that's enormously depressing. On the other hand, acknowledging it can be enormously empowering.

When it comes to being productive and reducing stress, it sometimes makes sense to go with the flow. Consider following these tips on how to be less organized, but ultimately happier.

Simplify the To-Do List

It may seem like a good idea to write down all of the things you want to get done in a given day. But more often than not, your to-do list turns into a "didn't-do" list, and you end up feeling bad about yourself. And that's not fair, because there's a good chance you did accomplish a lot during your day (it just wasn't what you had planned).

In his book Time Management That Doesn't Suck, author John Davidson writes:

To-do lists are not motivating. It's not fun to see a big list of tasks. It's not fun feeling out of control. It's not fun having your list tell you what to do. And it's not fun seeing the list get longer every day.

The Mayo Clinic endorses to-do lists as a way to stay organized and reduce stress. But, it emphasizes only prioritizing the most important tasks, and to "say no to non-essential tasks." (See also: 5 Simple Hacks to Make Your To-Do List More Effective)

So instead of making a long list, here's what to do instead: write down the items you know that you must do, such as deadline-oriented items or specific requests from your boss. (You may be relieved to find there are fewer of these items than you think.) Then pick one or two non-essential things that you'd like to get done. Avoid dwelling on what you haven't done. In fact, try a daily "done" list instead, writing down everything you've done that day, as you do them. This way, you'll go to bed feeling satisfied rather than frustrated.

Stop Stressing Over Email

The average worker spends 28% of their workday reading, writing, or responding to email, according to management consultant McKinsey and Company. Many people wrestle with their inboxes as if they are dealing with an angry gorilla. They create labels with special colors, mark certain emails as "priority" or "important" and work tirelessly to achieve Inbox Zero. It becomes a lot of work just to stay on top of it.

But it shouldn't be so hard. These days, most people have massive amounts of email storage space and most email programs are searchable. If you need something, you can usually find it. If you forget to reply to an email, the sender will contact you again if it was truly important.

Rather than fight with your email, follow a practice of deleting, archiving, or responding to every email as you read them. Oftentimes we check our email just out of habit or curiosity, when we don't actually have time to respond. When we read an email and then tag it for later, we're just doubling the time it takes to get through that email. Keep things simple and keep your blood pressure at a manageable level.

Stop Straightening Up

OK, I'm not suggesting you should let loose and end up on an episode of "Hoarders." But every moment you work to keep your house/car/desk clean is time you could be spending either being productive or having fun. (See also: Easy Organizing Changes You Can Make Today)

Keeping your environment clean has obvious benefits and can help you work and live more comfortably. But there is a point of diminishing returns, and trying to keep everything spotless on a daily basis can make you feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up that hill, day after day.

Learn to prioritize. At home, focus on straightening up rooms that you actually use on a regular basis. At work, take care of the area of your desk immediately in front of you, but don't stress about that pile of stuff at the far corner of your cubicle. As for your car, let the mess go unless you frequently have passengers.

It makes sense to set aside time to do a more thorough cleaning every few weeks. But on a daily basis, you'll find that letting things slide a bit can be quite liberating. After all, it was Albert Einstein who's credited with saying, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

One Calendar Is Enough

I know many people who will keep track of appointments using a sophisticated setup of color-coded electronic calendars, synced with multiple devices and set with text reminders. But all of this can easily morph into an unwieldy mess and source of stress.

When it comes to calendars, there's no reason to go crazy. You don't need separate calendars for personal and work-related appointments. In fact, you may not need an electronic calendar at all. I know many people who swear by an old-fashioned Day Runner or desktop calendar, and there are some people who believe the act of writing something down — on paper — will enhance your ability to remember it. A single, simple calendar will usually do the trick. And besides, what ever happened to just relying on our memory? (See also: How to Improve Your Memory)

In Meetings, Avoid a Written Agenda

If you're running a meeting at work, it helps to have a plan of what you want to talk about. But a formal, published agenda can be a burden instead of a help.

Trying to stick to a written agenda can make it harder for you to hear concerns or answer questions. An agenda can help you stay on track in terms of time, but can also force you to rush through items that may deserve more discussion.

Instead of having a hard agenda, just jot down the key issues you want to discuss, or even better, try to focus one major theme. Do your best to hit your points, but be sure to listen to other people and allow the meeting to flow naturally. If there's a key issue you didn't get to, simply follow up with an email to the staff.

How do you prevent your productivity tools from weighing you down?

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Guest's picture

I make a point of only checking my email once a day and having a pretty simple to-do list and then just extend on what I have on that list. These tips are good advice and will help your work be much more efficient.