What can you stop doing to make more time for for joy and use your time more meaningfully? The next time you set a goal or decide you want to improve upon an area of your life — or simply alleviate some of the pain that area is causing you — remember to go for subtraction instead of addition.
Want to Be More Productive? Try Doing Less. By Kate Northrup, Harvard Business Review, May/June 2020 HBR ISSUES19.95
We’ve been taught that if we want more — money, achievement, vitality, joy, peace of mind — we need to do more, to add more to our ever-growing to-do list. But what if we’ve been taught wrong? What if the answer to getting more of what we want isn’t addition at all, but subtraction?
As it turns out, evidence supports that if we want to ramp up our productivity and happiness, we should actually be doing less. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, found that we’re truly focused on our work a mere six hours per week, which starkly contrasts our collective buy-in to the 40-hour workweek. When you stop doing the things that make you feel busy but aren’t getting you results (and are draining you of energy), then you end up with more than enough time for what matters and a sense of peace and spaciousness that constant activity has kept outside your reach.
As people with full lives — kids, careers, friends, passions, logistics, and more — how can we apply the wisdom of doing less to give ourselves more time and alleviate stress without jeopardizing our results?
We need to identify what not to do. But this determination can’t be random. It must be methodical and evidence-based. Through my work with women navigating the dual vocations of entrepreneurship and motherhood, I’ve created a surprisingly simple exercise to help individuals decide what activities on their to-do list bring them the most value, and which they can stop doing. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, lengthwise.
Step 2: Decide on an area of your life or work where you’d like to have better results and less stress. For example, perhaps you want to expand your thought leadership.
Step 3: On the left-hand side, list the tasks or activities you do in that area of your work or life. As an aspiring thought leader, you might list attending conferences, pitching organizations for speaking opportunities, writing new articles, reading and researching, and so on.
Step 4: On the right-hand side, make a list of your biggest “wins” in that area, like a speaking gig, a presentation you really nailed at work, or a pitch that was accepted at a major publication. This can often be a difficult step for some people. We have not been culturally conditioned to celebrate ourselves, so often, folks will draw a blank when listing their “wins.” Any result you’ve gotten (either one time or repeatedly) that was positive can go on this list. Don’t get caught up in listing the “right” things. Just list what comes to you.
Step 5: Draw a line connecting each of your biggest wins to the activity or task that was most responsible for that result. Reading and researching, for instance, were essential to getting your pitch accepted for publication, so connect these two together.
Step 6: Circle all the activities and tasks on the left side of your paper that have been responsible for your big wins. Look at what’s left. Whatever isn’t circled is something that you need to either stop doing completely, significantly minimize, or delegate if it absolutely must be done. For instance, if you discover that traveling for conferences once a month isn’t directly contributing to any wins, it’s time to set that aside or at least cut back.
This same approach can be used to determine where to do less in other areas of your life. For instance, if you’re looking to connect more with your children, you might list a few specific memories or “wins” when you really felt like you were being the best parent you could, such as singing silly songs with your preschooler while folding the laundry on a Sunday morning or when your preteen bared their soul to you and you felt so honored by how safe they felt to tell you the hard stuff.
Now think about the tasks you do on a regular basis: laundry, making lunch, reminding your kids to do their schoolwork, checking off committee items for the PTA, making sure everyone has clothes that fit, and scheduling pediatrician appointments. While these tasks may need to be done, this exercise can give us permission to spend less time on these activities. Often the things we think we “must” do are simply because we always have done them or others around us do them and we think we should, too. Such a perspective creates unnecessary stress when we do these tasks late, make errors, or ask for help. Maybe instead of serving on the PTA, you can just attend the occasional meeting — or follow up with another parent who regularly attends. Perhaps you can set up a system where your children are in charge of making sure their schoolwork is done by a particular time each day, rather than reminding them yourself. On the other hand, if you discover that making lunch with your preteen provided that opportunity for them to initiate a heart-to-heart, maybe that’s something you’d like to keep on your list.
Repeat this exercise for as many areas of your life that you’d like to enhance through subtraction. Be ruthless. And don’t forget to consider what brings you joy. Not only does happiness make you at least 12% more productive, it’s also what makes life worth living in the first place.
Life is not about racking up a list of accomplishments. What can you stop doing to make more time for yourself, make more time for joy, and use your time more meaningfully? The next time you set a goal or decide you want to improve upon an area of your life — or simply alleviate some of the pain that area is causing you — remember to go for subtraction instead of addition. Revel in the joy of doing less.
Kate Northrup is the best-selling author of Do Less and Money: A Love Story. Her digital company helps ambitious women light up the world without burning themselves out. Learn more at katenorthrup.com.
One Notebook Could Replace All the Productivity Apps That Have Failed You
A nerd’s guide to bullet journaling.
- Amy Schellenbaum
Notebook. Pen. That’s all you need. Photo by Estée Janssens via Unsplash.
You may have heard of bullet journaling, probably from your sister or your coworker or some other enviably competent person you have the pleasure of knowing. It’s a productivity pocketknife—customizable, indispensable, satisfying to use—that is helping people track and organize anything and everything in their lives.
Its popularity blossomed in spring 2016 and intensified as back-to-school season approached. By January 1—a heady day for the latent productivity nerd—the bullet journaling community was evangelizing in full force. Myself included, I guess.
Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Bullet Journaling?
First of all, the system is totally analog. By that I mean it is done with a notebook (any notebook!) and a pen (or pencil, if you’re one of those people). It’s so simple it’s stupid. It’s so simple it’s brilliant, too.
The idea first percolated in the brain of a dude named Ryder Carroll, who explains the concept very succinctly in this video. The basic premise is this: you have one book that contains every list, note, and plan in your life. It’s like a planner, except not at all like a planner—because there are no templates and no rules. Because of this, it’s very flexible and low-pressure. It’s nothing more than you can handle; it’s exactly as ambitious or exhaustive as you need at the exact time you are using it.
The concept hinges on just two “requirements” (they’re not really required, honestly): an index and numbered pages. These elements let you see, at a glance, where to find the exact list you want to refer to—goals for the month, plans for your trip to Bermuda, health insurance reminders, etc.
Because there are no templates, you can also use this notebook for non-list things, too. You can journal or doodle or hand-letter a quote. You can tape in photos or ticket stubs or receipts.
Your bullet journal is a catch-all for everything that itches your brain. It’s your to-do list and your calendar and your junk drawer.
Why Do People Bullet Journal?
There are a lot of reasons, but I will name just a few:
Writing Things Down Can Make You Feel Better, Mentally and Physically
Decades of studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between writing (particularly journaling) and health. Take, for example, the many studies of psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas. In one, he asked half of his participants to write 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. That’s it. Even months later, those who journaled were much happier than those in the control group. As New York Mag once reported, “in the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.”
Research has also suggested that writing things down improves immune cell activity and reduces antibody counts for people with viruses like Epstein-Barr and AIDS. Journaling could also improve memory and help you sleep, according to some studies.
The Power of Free-Association:
Beyond the benefits just mentioned, therapists often use journaling to get their patients to better understand how parts of their lives relate to each other. This helps people triangulate who they are and how they might react to different actions and emotions. Bullet journals, which by nature are collections of tasks and ideas that span the full spectrum of a person’s physical, mental, and emotional life, are particularly well-suited for synthesizing information and drawing conclusions from it.
If you like Harry Potter, you can think of a bullet journal kind of like a Pensieve—a place to unload thoughts and reminders, which frees and focuses your mental and emotional efforts. Once you’ve written down all the tiny things you need to get done, you give your brain the capacity and the encouragement to actually do the things.
The Manual Effort:
It’s easy, particularly (old man voice) these days, to underestimate the swell of satisfaction from making progress on something physical. To-do lists give nerds like me the thrill of checking something off. It’s a genuinely pleasurable experience.
Bullet journaling takes that a step further: By treating task lists like archival records of your life, as precious as letters from a loved one or photos from a vacation, you’re letting yourself feel proud of small accomplishments, and soothing your weary existential soul by recording the things you’ve done with your life—at every scale.
It’s Just Fun as Hell:
Here are some of the things people commonly use when bullet journaling: gel pens, stickers, decorative tape, highlighters, and magazine clippings. Here are some of the things people track: book and movie recommendations, vacation plans and packing lists, moments of gratitude, favorite Prince lyrics, and sex stuff.
How Do I Start a Bullet Journal?
The fundamental anatomy of a bullet journal is so blissfully simple you may weep:
Step One: Index
Here you list where to find spreads that you may want to refer back to in the future. (A one-off grocery list? Probably not. German adjective declinations? Add it.)
Some notebooks already have numbered pages and room for an index, but more on that later.
Step Two: Future Log
You can refer to this any time you want to make note of a date in the far future. If it’s January, you probably haven’t created a June spread, but you want to note your college roommate’s wedding anyway. That kind of thing.
Step Three: Spreads for Planning
These generally fall under three categories: monthlies, weeklies, and dailies.
Your monthly spread (above) is where you write down appointments, pay days, meet-ups, classes, vacations, holidays, due dates, etc. There are a few ways to do this. Personally, I just draw up a calendar on a two-page spread, leaving room for a box that says “next month” to jot down future items, and a tinier version of the following month’s calendar, like this.
Another popular way to get a glance at your month is to use a “calendex,” where one writes down page numbers as opposed to event titles. For example: If you took notes on a meeting you had on the 13th, you could go to the calendex for that month and make a note of the page number by that date. Here’s what it looks like:
Others (including the creator of the concept) use a vertical version, so the month looks more like a list.
To be totally honest: weekly planning (above) doesn’t work for me. The scale is too weird. I either want to dump every tiny task in or nothing at all. My impression is that people who don’t have a lot of tasks to do every day (maybe their jobs are much more straight-forward than mine), use a weekly spread as opposed to the long, convoluted day-by-day pages I prefer.
I do, however, use these stickers from Muji to write down my non-work appointments for the week: German class, drinks with friends, medical appointments, and more.
Daily spreads (above) are the bread and butter of your bullet journal; at its core, a simple to-do list, bracketed (if you want) by journaling, doodles, and tip-ins. (Tip-in, noun, planning lingo meaning ephemera taped in on one side, so it’s like a little flap on the page.)
Step Four: Collections
Collections are lists or charts that fall outside of your planning spreads.
You can have collections that track spending, the status of job applications, your sleeping habits—basically any “collection” of thoughts you’d like to keep on hand. Collections like these are scattered throughout my journal, and have no explicit tie to the daily spreads that surround them. Other collections relate to your dated spreads, like grocery lists, money spending trackers, and monthly gratitude logs.
What Are the Best Supplies?
Again, you can bullet journal in any notebook, using any writing implement. If you insist that you need a whole new set-up, though, there are a few unambiguous fan favorites to consider:
The Notebook: Leuchtturm 1917
If you’re buying a shiny new notebook anyway, don’t mess around with anything but a dot-grid. It keeps your handwriting from drooping, but feels as liberating as a blank page.
The Leuchtturm 1917 is popular because the book already has an index and numbered pages. It’s also a lie-flat hard-cover, which journal nerds know is just the best. The grammage of the paper (80 grams per square meter) is also superior, so if you’re one of those people who can’t stand bleed-through or ghosting—or you use fountain pens or some other particularly inky implement—this is a good buy.
UPDATE Aug. 25, 2017: Leuchtturm 1917 is dead. Long live Scribbles That Matter. It comes in a dot grid. It comes with page numbers. Its paper is even thicker, at 100 g/sqm, which means less bleed-through. You can find it here.
That being said, a Leuchtturm will cost you $20. Personally, I use a $7 dot-grid notebook from Muji. It’s cheaper, I don’t mind numbering the pages myself, and I think everything that comes from that store is imbued in an aspirational, ethereal quality that I should not even try to explain. It’s like Marie Kondo herself has held each product and encouraged it to give me serenity and pleasure. But that’s just me!
There are also many Moleskine die-hards, but the price is steep, the pages aren’t numbered, and the paper is a bit flimsier (70 g/sqm) than that of the Leuchtturm.
The Pens: Pigma Micron, Pilot Juice, and Staedtler Tri-Plus Fineliners
I started my bullet journal with a set of 12 gel pens from Muji I got for $12. I love these pens, but must admit to true aficionados that the ink does occasionally skip, and they smear when used in conjunction with a highlighter.
The very best gel pens, I believe, are the Pilot Juice pens in size 0.38mm. They’re super thin, come in fun colors, and don’t smear—even for lefties and people who are super into highlighting.
The Staedtler Tri-Plus Fineliners are top-notch color pens, too. They don’t bleed through and don’t smear. The difference is that they have metal-encased fiber tips, which (to put it in pen nerd terms) simply aren’t as expressive as bolder, inkier fountain pens or, in my mind, gel pens.
For a high-quality basic black, go for Pigma Micron. They come in a variety of tip sizes (I like 03 size, which is 0.35mm), plus the ink is of archival quality and virtually smudge-proof.
Get out of here.
The Highlighters: Mildliners
Mildliner highlighters are a favorite of teens with incredible taste and incredible Tumblr followings. They come in soft colors like lavender and gray, so they highlight without being jarring on the page.
Get a ruler. I like this one or this one, which is also a protractor of sorts. I’d also recommend getting a clipboard, if you don’t already have one, because it means you can journal from the couch. You can also get stencils, stickers, and washi tape, but I have very few opinions there. Follow your bliss.
TL;DR Writing stuff down is cool again—and just might be the key to getting shit done.
More from Popular Science
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This post originally appeared on Popular Science and was published December 29, 2016. This article is republished here with permission.
April 28, 2020, HBR
Use design thinking for competitive advantage. If you read nothing else on design thinking, read these 10 articles. We’ve combed through hundreds of Harvard Business Review articles and selected the most important ones to help you use design thinking to produce breakthrough innovations and transform your organization. This book will inspire you to: Identify customers’ “jobs to be done” and build products people love; Fail small, learn quickly, and win big; Provide the support design-thinking teams need to flourish; Foster a culture of experimentation; Sharpen your own skills as a design thinker; Counteract the biases that perpetuate the status quo and thwart innovation; Adopt best practices from design-driven powerhouses. This collection of articles includes “Design Thinking,” by Tom Brown; “Why Design Thinking Works,” by Jeanne M. Liedtka; “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking,” by Christian Bason and Robert D. Austin; “Design for Action,” by Tim Brown and Roger L. Martin; “The Innovation Catalysts,” by Roger L. Martin; “Know Your Customers’ ‘Jobs to Be Done,'” by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan; “Engineering Reverse Innovations,” by Amos Winter and Vijay Govindarajan; “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” by Amy C. Edmondson; “How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking into Strategy,” by Indra Nooyi and Adi Ignatius,” and Reclaim Your Creative Confidence,” by Tom Kelley and David Kelley.Product #: 10349E-KND-ENGPages: 192Related Topics: Leading teams, Organizational structure, Change management, Innovation, Design thinking, Transformations, Experimentation, Customer feedback, Product development, Organizational design, Feedback loop, Creativity, Problem solving