How to Do Less (and Make the Most of Your Time)

I've been feeling this insistent tug to write about productivity for a few weeks. The problem is, I don't want to write about productivity. So many expert tips are geared toward showing us how to do more in less time . . . so that we can use our leftover time to do more yet. I don't want to do more. I think I do quite enough as it is, thank you very much.

I'm sick of the hustle and rush. I want to slow down. I want to do fewer things in a day, but more things that matter.

That's what I want for you too. These productivity tips will help you do less, not more. Use them when you're feeling a little suffocated by the rush of everyday life.

How to Do Less and Make the Most of Your Time. Productivity isn't always about doing more. This is my favorite strategy for doing less busy work and more things that really matter.
How to Do Less and Make the Most of Your Time. Productivity isn't always about doing more. This is my favorite strategy for doing less busy work and more things that really matter.

6 Ways to do less (and make the most of your time)

1. Say no to good things

This idea will come as no surprise if you've read Essentialism by Greg McKeown or The Best Yes by Lysa TerKeurst. The basic premise behind both these books is this: Your time is finite. Be wise in choosing what you do with it.

Obviously you'll have to say no to some things. You can't do everything. But why do you have to say no to good things?

Because good things are often the opportunities that tempt us away from doing better things. We don't turn them down as easily because they don't jump out as being time wasters.

This client isn't the type of person you love to work with, but they have a big budget and they love your work. That's a good opportunity. That other client who comes along later and is someone you've wanted to work with forever? That's a better one. That coffee date with the friend you see all the time is a good opportunity. The chance to go on a rare date night because your mom is in town to watch the kids is a better one.

Don't sacrifice better in pursuit of good. You may not be dissatisfied with a schedule full of good things, but you'll never know what better opportunities you're missing out on until you make room for them.

2. Decide what actually matters

Lindsay Crandall said in her episode of the Chasing Creative podcast that she's focusing on only what matters this year. This is a brilliant way to do less and avoid overwhelm. But it begs the question, what actually matters to you?

Chances are a few things jump out at you right away: spending time with family, making space for things that refresh your soul, going to bed early enough to be well rested each day. But how often are those the very things that get pushed aside the second a tight deadline or unexpected commitment comes our way?

Making a list of things that matter means you're automatically deciding that other things don't matter. Things like checking your email on a Sunday afternoon or dusting the baseboards. (Seriously, guys, no one is looking at your baseboards.)

If the idea of doing less fells completely unattainable, this is a good place to start.

3. Write realistic to-do lists

I'm a to-do list fanatic. I can't end a workday without writing out the next day's essential tasks in my planner. My problem is that those "essential tasks" lists are usually unrealistic.

Instead of writing down everything I'd like to get done in a day, I'm challenging myself to write down things I could actually accomplish if I stay focused.

Not only does having unfinished to-dos at the end of the day feel unsatisfying, it leads to what I call "to-do list overflow." As in, you start the next day already behind because you're still playing catch-up from the day before. By the time you get to Friday, there's a pile of random tasks left to get to . . . and those usually overflow their way into the weekend where you quickly wrap them up so you can start all over again on Monday.

Keeping a realistic to-do list means that more often than not, I actually check everything off my list and can relax at the end of the day. It also forces me to put "decide what actually matters" into action as I make tough choices about what makes it onto the list and what doesn't.

4. Set meaningful time constraints

You've probably heard me mention that my productivity went through the roof once I had a baby. Having limited time to work each day meant there was none to waste, so I was immediately getting down to business and getting things done.

Time constraints like a napping baby are a great way to push yourself to be more efficient, but there are other ways to create meaningful time limits for your day.

Try giving yourself something to look forward to at a certain time of day, like Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy, who has a standing reading date with herself each afternoon at 2:00. Take a walk each day at the same time. Get in the habit of meeting friends for a quick coffee or scheduling Skype dates once a week.

Having a standing appointment with yourself not only makes sure you're making time for things that matter, it will make you use your work time more effectively. Because no one wants to waste an entire day on a project that should have taken three hours.

5. Leave a buffer

I leave buffers before deadlines with nearly every project I take on. If I think something will take me ten hours, I leave fifteen in my schedule. It keeps me from overestimating my work pace and ending up scrambling to finish work at the last minute---plus it comes in handy on days Hadley refuses to nap.

But that's not the only way buffers allow me to do less. Osheta Moore shared on the Art of Simple blog that she often leaves wide boundary times between events so she can decompress in between. For example, she'll leave a coffee date at 1:00 even though she doesn't have to pick her kids up until 2:30. The extra space gives her room to slow down, take a breath, and not feel rushed.

How can you work buffer times into your day? Try leaving earlier for appointments, shutting down the computer fifteen minutes before you need to start dinner, or waking up a few minutes before your kids usually wake up. (I'm so bad at that last one, but hey, we're all works in progress!)

6. Don't let other people's urgency become your urgency

Have you ever heard of the Urgent/Important matrix? The basic idea is that important things are the big-picture tasks that matter to business---or life. Things like setting business goals, playing baseball with your kids in the backyard, or thinking ahead about your blog's editorial calendar are all important. Urgent things are tasks that may seem important, but more often than not, they're just fires that need to be put out.

Urgent tasks distract us from important tasks. Let too many urgent things pile up, and you'll find there's no time left in your day for what really matters.

Other people try to force their urgency onto us all the time, whether intentionally or accidentally. Clients send frantic last-minute emails about tasks that aren't that important, your mom is frazzled about hosting company this weekend, your husband is stressed because of a big work project. There are a million ways for someone else to feel urgency and pass that stress along to you.

Don't let them. 99% of the time, someone else's urgent task does not need to force its way to the top of your to-do list. Support people as you're able, but keep a solid boundary between yourself and the urgency. There's no need to make someone else's stress your own.

Do you struggle with not being able to slow down? What are your favorite tricks for doing less?