Relentlessly Audit Your Life
Your stop-doing list matters even more than your to-dos
How many times, when has someone asked, “How are you?” or, “What’s going on in your life?” have you answered, “I’m so busy”?
Then the logical next question they ask is, “What are you so busy with?” You pause and think for a minute and then respond with a laundry list of the tasks on any given day’s to-do list. Or maybe you offer up an exhausted, “Oh, you know, life.”
I’m not judging, truly. I’ve given those responses many, many times before and after I became a mom, a successful entrepreneur, and a bestselling author. And every time I did, I’d feel even more overwhelmed and exhausted and disappointed in myself. Because, deep down, I knew all the stuff that was eating up my time — that I was allowing to eat up my time — wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing. And I longed to be able to answer with passion and purpose about things that were really filling my soul.
I’m going to take you through an exercise I do at least twice a year and have guided many teams through in my capacity as a life and business coach. This two-step exercise can show you exactly where all your time is going.
- I want you to write down everything you do over the course of a week, in all parts of your life, and how long you spend on each activity. And I mean everything. Grab a notebook and carry it with you everywhere so you can capture every single thing you do for seven days. It might seem extreme at first, but if you don’t write down everything you’re spending your time on, you won’t be able to identify what you need to change.
- Once you’ve spent a whole week recording your life, look at everything listed on every day and categorize each entry.
- Mark “P” for everything that serves one or more of your priorities.
- Mark “G” for everything that’s helping you get closer to achieving one or more of your goals.
- Mark “F” for everything that’s just plain fun.
- Mark “H” for everything you hate doing.
- Mark “S” for everything you think you should do.
- Mark “M” for everything you think you must do.
As you label each activity, really think about how it should be categorized, and call BS on yourself if you need to. The things that are marked “P” and “G” are what you should be doing if, in fact, they truly serve your priorities and goals. And the things you’re doing for fun? You get to keep those. Fun things you’re doing will likely be serving at least one of your priorities and goals, whether you realize it or not.
The items you mark “M” must truly be the things you cannot possibly avoid, like sleeping, basic hygiene, taking time to fuel your body, and going to the bathroom. (Hey, I told you to write down everything.) Anything else doesn’t get an “M.”
Finally, the entries you’ve marked “H” or “S” — the hates and the shoulds — or those without a label because you can’t figure out what they are? That’s where we’re going to spend our time together.
Hates and shoulds
If you’re anything like me, your hates and shoulds include many of the following: housecleaning, laundry, administrative work in your professional and personal life, finances, cooking dinner, grocery shopping, volunteering for the school book drive, baking from scratch, hand-making Valentines, and more. Oh, so much more. Most of us are should-ing all over the place.
The problem with shoulds is they don’t support our priorities or help us reach our goals. And often, we’re doing the things we hate to do because we think we should. Should happens because of real or made-up societal pressure. At the root of us doing all these shoulds is our belief that we’re supposed to do everything, and if we’re unable to, there’s something wrong with us.
But I recognized early on in my entrepreneurial career that if I was ever going to be one of those seven-figure CEOs that I aspired to be, I wouldn’t be able to do everything. In fact, doing the things I hated or thought I should do not only took my time away from the things I really wanted to do, but they also zapped my energy and made me less productive in all parts of my life.
Become a master delegator
Delegating is not a weakness; it’s a superpower. And we all have to get comfortable doing it if we want to have balanced, fulfilling, productive careers and personal lives at the same time.
Years ago, when I was in startup mode for my business, with a baby and a toddler keeping me busy at home, there was no way I could wear all the hats that wanted space on my head. I began a habit of analyzing what I was doing with my time. Anything that could free up my time to do the things I really wanted to do was fair game for the chopping block, either by delegating or deleting.
Here’s the wrinkle: It costs money to delegate and delete. But if you can afford to pay someone else to take things off your plate, I argue that it’s actually a valuable business expense. A life expense, even. It will free you up to focus on what’s really important to you.
And as your income grows because you have more time to further your career, you can reinvest some of that increase back into your business by constantly reviewing what you can pay someone else to do in all parts of your life. Bottom line: If the hourly cost of outsourcing a task is less than what an hour of your time is worth to you, outsource away.
The power of ‘no’
While it’s one thing to say no to yourself and strike something off your own to-do list, it’s quite another to say it out loud to other people to decline invitations and requests for your time. But here’s the thing: When you say no to the things you don’t want to do or can’t do and instead focus on serving your priorities and goals, you’ll start getting more of what you want. And the more you say no, the easier it gets.
I’ve found that the best way to decline an invitation or a request for my time is to be honest, authentic, and respectful, without hurting the other person’s feelings. You can truthfully share why you need to decline without being defensive, apologetic, or an asshole. And I only include “sorry” when I really meant it, instead of allowing it to be a knee-jerk response. I’m not sorry when I am protecting my time for my priorities.
If you make your response emotionally authentic, the other person probably won’t take it personally. And if they do, they’re reading more into your declination that you’ve truthfully relayed, which is their issue and not yours.
The one big no-no of “no” is not saying no in the first place and instead just not doing what you’ve agreed to do. Standing someone up for meetings or calls, not responding to emails, or going into the witness protection program — these are all things you must not do. You’re better than that.
Your stop-doing list
As bestselling author and personal development expert Jim Collins puts it, “Stop-doing lists are more important than to-do lists.” To make a stop-doing list for yourself, go back through everything you marked “P” and “G” and make extra sure that those items really do serve your priorities and goals. If they don’t, you have to recategorize them.
The stuff you marked “H” and “S”? Revisit each entry and determine what you’re going to delegate or delete altogether. Start with the things that will give you the most instant relief. Is there a list of requests for your time you’ve been avoiding? Measure each one against your priorities and goals, and then respond, putting your “no” muscle to work. Will hiring someone else to tackle that annoying task put a nice big chunk of time back on your plate, along with more peace of mind? Go find someone! And then, every couple weeks, find another delegating fix.
Time is money, but there’s one more valuation I want you to think about: What’s your mental well-being worth? Putting our time into so many hates and shoulds doesn’t just keep us from getting to what we really want to do; it can also leave us feeling like we don’t have control over our lives. That’s why whenever I start to feel stressed and that my schedule is out of control, I know it’s time to do this time analysis process — at least every six months. I encourage you to do the same.
From You Can Have It All: Just Not at the Same Time!, by Romi Neustadt. Published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Romi Neustadt.