Stop Doing List

To-do lists have become part of both our personal and professional lives. Most of us keep lists to stay organized, track our tasks, and visualize our progress over the day, week, or month. The idea behind the to-do list is simple — it is a set of tasks that your past self has said that you need to complete within a certain amount of time.

I find that to-do lists are a very effective motivator — being able to check off a new item feels liberating. There is one interesting application of the to-do list model that has not yet been explored in as much depth, but I would argue is one of the best implementations of the model: a stop-doing list.

In life we all have a set of goals that we want to accomplish. Perhaps we are looking to get a big promotion at work. Or we aim to start a company. Or write a book. We have been taught from a young age that we should set consistent goals over time, and that goals act as our North Star to ensure that we are on track with our lives. To-do lists help us organize our thoughts and break them down into specific, and actionable tasks about how we can accomplish a broader goal (or better yet, form a habit).

A question I have recently started to ask myself is: what would you stop doing?

We have a limited amount of time to spend. Indeed, the greatest philosophers in history have remarked on the shortness of time, and have reinforced the importance of living a life based on your passion. Time is our most scarce resource, and we should be constantly trying to improve our lives so that we can make the most out of the time that we have.

The problem with our time is that it passes quickly, and often we fail to consider how much time has passed in enough depth. Often, we are aware of how we are spending our time — we are conscious of it. This may be because we have set a task with a specific timeframe in which we need to complete the task. However, most of the time that we have passes unconsciously — we are focusing on other things and time is just passing in the background. Perhaps we are fully engaged in a task, or perhaps we are watching television and we have not considered how long we have actually been sitting down. A lot of the most common expressions in our language are oriented around the shortness of time — “Where has the time went!”, “Today has gone so quickly!”, to name just a few.

Interestingly, one of the most cited regrets by the elderly are that they have not spent their time as efficiently as they could. Most people reflect on the fact that they did not accomplish everything they wanted to in their lives. This is normally not because they don’t have the time, nor the energy. Rather, this is because people have not been intentional with how they spend their time — they let themselves become immersed in actions which do not add any value to their lives. They may have watched more television than they would have liked, or refrained from leaving their work to continue their company because they were scared of the financial implications.

Some of the biggest decisions in our lives are not about what to do, but rather what not to do. If so many people look back at the end of their lives and regret not investing time in something, then clearly it shows that we are not being as intentional with our time as we should be. Consider how many things in your life that you could stop doing, that would allow you to focus more on what matters to you. If you spend some time writing a stop doing list and start acting in accordance with it, you will quickly realize that you have more time to spend on the things that mean most to you — your family, your work, or that side project you have wanted to spend more time on.

To get started, you should first consider what your passion is in life — you can have multiple. If your work is very important to you, then you should reflect on that and imagine how much more successful you could be if you had some more time and stopped a few bad habits. Evaluating the values that matter most in your life can help you out here as well. If your family is very important to you, then you should reflect on how much stronger your relationships would be if you could spend more time doing things with them. This allows you to become more attached to the things that matter most, and will help you understand the opportunity cost of your current routine — what are you missing out on because of your bad habits.

Writing a stop-doing list can take some time. We need to spend time and reflect on exactly what in our lives is acting as a barrier to our success. This may involve us thinking about our daily routines and mental models, and reflecting on their efficiency. Perhaps we may also reflect on how we allocate our time to projects, work, and family. Writing a stop-doing list requires you to become more aware of yourself, how you work, and what habits and activities are in the way of you achieving your goals.

The final thing to consider about your stop-doing list is what activities add value to — or take away value from — your life. Although other values such as family or community may be important, you should evaluate what decisions will make the most economic sense in the long-term. Being in a good financial position allows you to stop worrying so much about work and will help you reprioritize your time. If you start to remove the habits that add no value to your life, you will be able to focus more on generating economic value, which will make you feel more free in your non-work life.

For reference, here is my stop doing list:

  • Stop watching the news;
  • Stop taking things personally;
  • Stop caring about things that are outside of my control;
  • Stop accepting tasks that add no value to my life — career, monetary, or personal and;
  • Stop watching so much television and read more instead.

The first item on the list, “stop watching the news”, has been on my list for a while now. After making a point of refraining from consuming the news, I quickly noticed that I had more time to focus on my work. I no longer felt like I had to catch up with the latest political story, or watch breaking news live. This is a somewhat small change in relation to the others, but has helped me develop a clearer mind and focus on the aspects of my life that matter most — family, work, and making a difference. These items range in difficulty, but having them compiled into one list helps me stay on track and accountable to my goals.

I recommend that you make your stop-doing list easy to access. I use Todoist every day for work and personal tasks, and use a separate label in Todoist to outline my stop-doing list. You may find it beneficial to write your list on paper and hang it up on the wall, or keep a post-it on your desk, which will serve as a constant reminder for you to stop doing what is on your list.

One’s stop doing list will likely change over time. As you start to remove bad habits, and adopt new ones, you will need to re-evaluate your list and ask yourself how it can be improved. The ultimate goal of a stop-doing list is to allow you to free up time to focus on the things that matter to you. The amount of time we have is limited, and spending a few moments on writing down what we want to stop doing is a great first-step in changing the way we perceive our limited time.