A woman holding a purse in a business power suit

“A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not.”—Jim Collins

It’s advice many of us are taught from a young school age. When things feel overwhelming or we have a lot to get done, the solution is simple: create a To-Do list.

The age-old concept of the To-Do list has developed over time. Advice around this now advocates for us to create a priority list or a deadline list. We’re told we should tackle the toughest task first to get it out the way or tick off a few easier tasks first to help us feel motivated.

Many of us admit to adding things to our lists retrospectively, just for the satisfaction of crossing them off. We create lists for the day, week, month or year. For ourselves, our family and our teams. There is no limit to a good To-Do list.

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel quite tired. My list just grows and grows and never seems to meet its end. At what point do we stop and say “time for a rest” or does that need to go on the list too?

At what point do we stop and say “time for a rest?”

Why do we do it?

Ultimately, the aim of any To-Do list is to encourage our productivity. By creating a clear list of tasks and ticking them off, the evidence of how productive we’ve been is right under our noses.

The truth is there’s a wide gap between being productive and being busy. You can be the most disciplined, organized and efficient individual there is, but if the things you’re churning out are keeping you busy instead of productive, then you might be missing the point.

The truth is there’s a wide gap between being productive and being busy.

Learning the difference between being busy and productive can be difficult, but not impossible. Here are three ways to start identifying the difference:

1. Working Longer Hours

Research has confirmed something that’s pretty common sense. Our brains aren’t designed to work intensely for eight hours straight. We get tired, burn out and productivity goes out the window. If you find yourself working all hours, then you might have fallen into the busy trap.

2. Not Taking Breaks

How many times have you gone to sleep feeling stuck on a problem, only to wake up with the solution? Allowing our brains to rest actually motivates those creative problem-solving synapses. If your tasks are feeling like a struggle, then taking a break could be the key difference between being productive versus busy.

3. Doing Everything Yourself 

We are not designed to work in silos. Keeping your productivity within your boundaries means learning to delegate appropriately to others who can help you. Remember, productivity comes from collaboration just as much as it comes from the work you do yourself.

How do we stop?

Jim Collins, educator and author, details a turning point for him when one of his graduate professors asked him to reflect on a common query.

In a post for the USA Today, he explains: “Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first call tells you that you’ve inherited $20 million. The second tells you that you have a terminal disease with no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently and what would you stop doing?”

Through this task, Collins was able to make a complete reassessment of where he was at, what he was giving his time and energy to and what he would rather be doing. He describes this as a pivotal moment in changing not only the way he approached his work but his entire career trajectory.

For me, it was a great exercise to sit down and take inventory of what I was giving my energy to, especially as I never felt “caught up.” Working full time along with freelancing means I’m always busy, but somewhere down the line I stopped feeling productive. It was really enlightening to realize there were a few ongoing projects I kept putting my name down for, which in reality had me dragging my heels. So, I  stopped doing them, immediately freeing up my time to put more energy into the work that fuels me.

How to create a ‘Stop Doing’ List

The current #hustle culture often applauds and promotes collecting accolades and projects, but it doesn’t allow breathing room to stop and ask the questions: Are these the right accolades and projects I should be doing? How do these things add value? Does being involved with them keep me 100 percent engaged? Do they consume me while I’m doing them or does a part of me die inside when I see it in on the list?

Of course, things like the housework, paying your bills and taking out the trash will always be on the To-Do list, but where the Stop-Doing list really comes in handy are the personal areas of your life like hobbies, career and life goals. 

In order to start curating your Stop-Doing list, Collins suggests asking the following:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you are genetically encoded for? What activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense? What can you make a living at?

Your real To-Do list begins at the intersection of these questions. Anything outside of that? Well, pop it on the Stop-Doing list.

What are some things you can add to a Stop Doing List? How could this mindset shift affect how you where you put your time and energy ?

Images via Frank Terry, Darling Issue No. 6


  1. Really interesting read. There’s so much on here I hadn’t considered. I can 100% identify with the whole #hustle and the dread of those certain items on the list!

    1. Thanks, Rachel! I sometimes feel that our #Hustle culture has taken a little bit of turn towards the toxic, and it’s really important to refocus on the things we take pleasure and value from – that also deliver value to others.

      Hope giving a ‘Stop Doing’ list a go helps you 🙂 xx

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