"Create a to-don't list." 5 practical ways to feel better about doing less.

There was once a time in my life when I felt like I had more control over my days. When I could determine what time I went to bed and what time I woke up. I could come up with a zealous to-do list and have a good chance at getting through a decent portion of it so long as the motivation came along for the ride. Though back then, I had the same 24 hours in a day that I do now, time didn’t feel as scarce.

Since becoming a parent, time has turned into one of the greatest riddles of my adult life. Much as I try to bend it, contort it, or tighten my grip on it, the more it seems to get away. 

Over the years, I’ve turned to various routines, productivity hacks or to-do list apps. In our productivity-obsessed culture, there’s no shortage of these 'life optimisations' being touted as a way for us to feel our best so we can do our best – and let’s face it, by best, we generally mean most. 

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We’re told we should have a morning routine that might include anything from meditating to doing an internal body scan, journaling, gentle stretching, rigorous exercise, setting an intention, drinking a lactose-free marine collagen green smoothie, while making a list of the day’s top five priorities, but absolutely not checking our phones at any stage of the process.


Then in the evening we’re told we should be setting bedtime alarms, lighting candles, writing gratitude lists, rubbing essential oils into the soles of our feet, giving ourselves scalp massages, drinking chamomile tea, doing breathwork, and absolutely not looking at that damn phone again.

Whilst there are no doubt many benefits to doing some of these things regularly, sometimes life just gets in the way. Like when you wake up on the floor next to your child’s cot confused as to what time it is, what day it is, and just how many hours are left before the day begins in earnest. In these moments, that ambitious/delusional 5am alarm you set for yourself the night before isn’t looking so good. The only thing that is looking good at that point is sleep, and even that’s not a given.

And so, you don’t do the thing, but you do beat yourself up about it.

It’s called productivity guilt.

The thing – whether it be your morning routine, afternoon walk, piano practice, or another round with the old to-do list – when not completed, becomes yet another thing to feel bad about. Largely, because society has repeatedly told us, we should be able to do it all.

Culturally, we’ve drunk the capitalist Kool-Aid and the message ingested is that our self-worth is directly tied to our productivity. While recent movements such as the Great Resignation and quiet quitting are pushing back against this notion, for a lot of us, untangling ourselves from this idea is easier said than done.


Not that productivity in and of itself is the bad guy here. Getting sh*t done is a necessary part of life and quite often feels good. It gives us a sense of achievement along with a surge of serotonin that compels us to do more. It’s the 'more' part however that seems to be the problem, because just how much more is ever enough?

Well, if the rising levels of anxiety, stress and burnout are anything to go by, it seems collectively we’re reaching our 'enough' limits. 

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A recent study by Microsoft Surface found 42 per cent of people feel they’re falling short or are worried that they’re not able to do, be, or achieve enough. This problem is more pronounced in women, with 59 per cent of women saying they feel this way, compared to 37 per cent of men.  

The study also found that 63 per cent of people are currently at the point of "stress overload" – an intense feeling of strain and pressure that is highly likely to lead to burnout, if left unchecked.

And so perhaps the question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t, 'How do we do more?' but, 'How do we get more comfortable with doing less?'

To try and answer this, we’ve talked to some experts. Here’s their advice. 

1. Reframe how you think about productivity.

Madeleine Dore is a writer, interviewer, and author of the book I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: On letting go of productivity guilt. In a quest to be more productive, Madeleine spent five years interviewing successful individuals on their daily routines and chronicling her findings via Extraordinary Routines and her podcast Routines & Ruts. 


When it comes to viewing productivity, Madeleine says it’s important to remember it’s just one piece of the pie when it comes to living a fulfilled life.

"I think it really is about redefining productivity... then you can perhaps feel more comfortable with the parts of your day that aren't necessarily directly connected to it. It's not just about action and doing and busyness. It really is about those fallow periods being important, those moments of doing nothing," says Madeleine.

"Even if you are being productive, that's just one by-product of living well. It's not the sole measure of our worth because it's not the sole measure of a day. When we put productivity as the measure, we miss the moments of connection that are also so important to our lives."

2. Create a to-don't list.

Just as the name suggests, creating a to-don’t list means detailing the things, within your control, that you don’t want or need to do and as a result, freeing yourself of draining, time-consuming tasks.

Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist and author of Timewise, is an advocate of to-don’t lists.

"In this world where people love to-do lists, life can often become about adding more and more and more things. And time is finite. So, we can't just keep adding more things and expect to keep feeling okay and under control," she says.

"So, the to-don't list is about doing the opposite and thinking about what we can subtract from our life."


To-don’t lists are a similar concept to blanket no rules which Madeleine discusses in her book, writing: "To guard space for what is important, I’ve found it helpful to create a blanket no rule – that is, I always decline certain things. When I first started out as a freelancer, for example, I was having lots of morning coffee catch ups with acquaintances, which I soon found were robbing me of essential writing time as my mind is sharpest in the morning. These days, I never say yes to a morning coffee catch-up... because it’s a blanket rule."

3. Lower the bar.

Part of the reason why we struggle getting through our epic to-do lists is because, well, they’re just too epic. In our efforts to be as productive as possible we set our expectations so high and don’t always consider the various disruptions and distractions that often punctuate our days. 

By lowering our expectations, even just a little, we might just find that we give ourselves a whole lot more breathing room. 

Madeleine says one practical way to go about this is by employing artist and author Austin Kleon’s checkbox routine. 

"Rather than this big list of things to do, or this really rigid schedule of timed tasks, it's really about just knowing what makes you feel good in your day," says Madeleine. 

"So just having two or three things (for Kleon, it’s journaling, writing, reading and walking) and if they happen – and they can happen in any order – but when they do, that's a marker of a good day. But it doesn't mean the day is a failure if they don't happen."


4. Experiment with your days.

Rather than adhering to strict routines and productivity hacks that often just set us up to fail, Madeleine suggests experimenting with our days to find an approach that works for us, even if it looks counterintuitive to somebody else.

"Experimenting with our day is an act of applying our human creativity," Madeleine writes. "It’s less about doing more than about doing things more creatively – which means embracing messiness and imperfection. We might not have the same privileges, the same resources, the same available hours in a day as somebody else... but irrespective of our life circumstances, each of us is given a day, and within it there is always something, however small, we can experiment with."

Through experimentation and embracing our own ways of doing things, Madeleine says we can give ourselves permission to operate in a way that suits us, rather than feeling like there's something wrong with us because we don't fit into a certain productivity box.

"The experience that I had was thinking I had to have a routine in order to have my life in order," says Madeleine. "But actually, that would get in the way and would mean that if I stumbled with one part of the routine, then the whole thing would topple over. When actually what I needed to get good at was adapting and going with the flow of things and being okay with things happening in a slightly different order."

5. Rest like you mean it.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that we’re human beings, not robots. That said, even robots get to recharge their batteries every now and again, but I digress. 

Tamara Cavenett, President of the Australian Psychological Society and a practising clinical psychologist says, "We need to dispel the notion that people can live life endlessly in 'go!' mode. It’s not a matter of choice, we’re not built for it. We require periods of rest, a healthy lifestyle, and leisure time."


"Some people feel they don’t have the luxury of being able to do less and that’s understandable when a lot of people are doing it tough. If this applies to you, try to remember that if you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after others and it’s okay to prioritise your needs, even if it’s for a small amount of time," continues Tamara.

For those who struggle to switch off, Tamara recommends scheduling down time.

Additionally, she advises to look outside productivity for your sense of self-worth. 

"Being able to measure yourself not just against tangible things like your productivity, but by non-tangibles, like your values and strength of relationships, is a vital way for you to assess yourself accurately. Achievement is simply not everything. Do not let the serotonin kick of achievement own you."

So, while it seems inevitable that there’ll be days we don’t get the thing done, we can at least be gentler with ourselves when it happens, which has surely got to feel better than the alternative. 

Emily McGrorey is a full-time reader, part-time procrastinator, freelance writer, casual Pilates student and aspiring author. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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