You Need a 'Stop Doing' List

It's just as important as a 'to do' list.

writing a list

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If the pandemic has taught me anything, it's that I was doing too much before it hit. My family's life was overbooked, packed with extracurricular activities, social obligations, and random appointments that suddenly ceased to be crucial when no longer available.

One benefit of having all these activities removed instantaneously from my life was that it gave me perspective. As life has slowly normalized (somewhat) in my region of Ontario, Canada, I've been able to think carefully and analytically about what gets returned to my schedule—and what does not. The list, as I'm sure you can imagine, is shorter than before. I've simply stopped doing many things that I realized weren't adding real or lasting value to my life.

In a recent blog post, minimalism expert Joshua Becker described this as a "stop doing" list. I love this analogy. We're so fixated on our "to do" lists and always being hyper-scheduled and on top of things; but really, the secret to achieving work-life balance may be to quit, to opt out, to walk away from specific activities and habits that are consuming too much time and energy.

The beauty of a "stop doing" list is that it creates time for other, more valuable things, unlike a "to do" list, which voraciously consumes time. "Stop doing" is a weeding-out process, a liberation of sorts. As Becker puts it, the removal of one habit can spark the start of a new one. He gives some examples:

"To find time to [start my blog], I almost entirely cut television out of my life. Rather than sitting on the couch in the evening to watch a sporting event or entertainment series, I sat down to write. Additionally, as I minimized my possessions and freed up time that was previously spent cleaning or organizing, I began going to the local gym to get my physical body in a healthier place."

My "stop doing" list contains things like staying up past bedtime to finish watching movies (because I always regret it the next morning when the alarm goes off at 5:30), drinking coffee in the afternoons and alcohol on weeknights (because it compromises my sleep quality), agreeing to social get-togethers on weeknights (inevitably I never want to go and it makes me grumpy), checking my phone every half-hour (I try to wait an hour!), grazing on snacks all day long, and not signing the kids up for after-school sports. 

Because I've stopped doing these things over the past few months, I've noticed some real improvements. The number of books I've read has skyrocketed. I'm performing better at the gym than ever. I'm waking up more easily and well-rested than I used to. I look forward to weekend social gatherings with greater anticipation. The kids are calmer and more relaxed. And I've just completed the first full draft of a book I've wanted to write for a decade. It's amazing what happens when Netflix is put on the back burner for a while.

It brings to mind what Cal Newport wrote in his excellent book, "Digital Minimalism" (reviewed here on Treehugger), that when we cut out bad habits (in this context, he's talking about digital ones), it's crucial to fill the void with high-quality leisure activities, particularly those that use one's hands to create physical things. Newport writes, "Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities."

There's a time and place for "to do" lists, but they should be balanced with "stop doing" lists. So write the two in tandem. Think consciously about the less desirable things that are consuming your time and how to eliminate them completely. Let the two lists balance each other so that you, too, feel balanced on a daily basis. 

And keep in mind this wonderful quote from Warren Buffett, which Becker shared in his blog post: "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything."