How To Get More Done By Having Less To Do

If your life feels like a constant game of tug-of-war, then it’s time to pare your existence down to its essentials.

How To Get More Done By Having Less To Do
[Image: Flickr user toffehoff]

Ask anyone how their life’s going these days, and either he or she will answer: “Busy!”


“I think it’s an almost universal experience right now that people feel busy but not productive,” says Greg McKeown, whose new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, argues for paring back commitments to achieve more.

If you’re feeling stretched, here’s five ways how to pull yourself back together:

1. Use the 90% Rule

You’re looking at a new opportunity. Rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 on how amazing you think it is. Then try this little thought experiment: “If it’s not a nine or 10, then it’s a one,” says McKeown. The goal is to take on tasks that are “a superb use of my time,” he says, “and I don’t mean that selfishly. I mean, is this the best way I can contribute to others, to society, is this my very highest point of contribution?”

The point is that “we need to see the difference between things that are good and things that are exceptionally good,” he says. “It’s an important distinction in a world exploding with options.”

2. Declutter With Purpose

As you examine your current life commitments, the best metaphor is to clean out your closet. Most of us look at unworn old clothes and ask less-than-helpful questions, says McKeown. “Will it one day come back into fashion? Will it one day fit me again?” A better criteria for keeping it is this: Would I buy it now?

Likewise, if you’re holding onto a commitment only because you’ve been doing it for a while, ask yourself if you’d add it to your life if it weren’t already there. If the answer is no, then you could consider extricating yourself.


3. Set Boundaries

We think working more hours will help us get ahead. Sometimes it will, but sometimes that inspires a lazy approach to work. “This is arithmetic,” says McKeown. “You can either do a few things superbly well, and break through to a higher point of contribution, or you can do many things averagely well. That will lead you to not being as distinctive.”

By setting boundaries–perhaps doing no work from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and taking at least 24 hours off each weekend–you force yourself to choose what deserves your attention, rather than pursuing whatever grabs it.

4. Make Smart Trade-Offs

Being an essentialist is “not just about saying no to stuff,” says McKeown. The truth is, people waste all sorts of time by saying yes unconsciously to trivial things. Humanity recently surpassed 16,000 years spent watching the video for “Gagnam Style.”

The average person would be happier if he cut his TV watching in half, and took on a volunteer commitment instead. That’s not just adding something into your life; it’s trading off something trivial for something more meaningful. “The argument I’m making is not less per se, it’s less but better–and that’s an important distinction,” McKeown says.

5. Check In

Use what McKeown calls the Rule of Three. Every quarter, “Take three hours to identify the top three essentials for the next three months,” he says. If you can take more time to review and plan, that’s great. But when people say they’re “too busy living to think about life,” that’s a recipe for mindless choices–and filling life with things that don’t deserve to be there.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at