Flipping the To-Do List Upside Down

I am a list maker. There is nothing like the feeling of checking a box or crossing off an item in that long, and seemingly always growing “to do list!” And I’m not alone in that feeling. There has been extensive research on the effectiveness of to-do lists, from improving people’s time management, to allowing them to fall asleep more quickly. Articles on to-do lists abound, from “7 Expert-Approved Ways to Write a Better To-Do List,” to “The psychology of the to-do list—why your brain loves ordered tasks." And good luck sifting through the thousands of to-do list apps!

While I love a good to-do list, one of the first things I had to teach myself to do when I embarked on my full-time triathlon career was to flip the “to-do list” mentality on its head. For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was always trying to push the boundaries of how much I could achieve in a day. But that approach had to go out the door if I wanted to become a top elite triathlete.

When I began training/racing full-time in triathlon, I instituted a “stop doing” list. At that time, my goal was to stop doing something at all times. That was a hard habit to break! But once I allowed myself to slow down, take time out of each day to nap or do literally nothing, I found that not only was my mind so much more at peace, but I was significantly happier and the quality of my training and work improve. In that process, I saw firsthand how important the “not doing” in between activities could be; sometimes equally, if not more important, than the action itself.

In the spirit of focusing on quality over quantity, my “stop doing” list typically just has one thing on it at a time that I’m trying to work on, and it has evolved over time. At one point, it was “stop saying yes to everything.” I’ve gotten quite good at saying “no” over the past few years—something I was historically quite unskilled at doing. Low and behold, just as when I integrated daily naps/nothing-ness time, I found that as my ability to say “no" improved, so to did the quality of my concentration and quality of training sessions. Currently, the key item on my “stop doing” list is multi-tasking. As anyone I know can attest, I’m kind of the queen of having a show going in the background with several Chrome windows and Word/Excel documents at a time while also hopping on and off Instagram on my phone. This year, I’ve been working on doing on one thing a time, doing it well, and then moving onto the next activity. When I execute this, my mindfulness goes up and distraction goes down. I’m still not 100%, but as Napoleon Hill famously said, “Strength and growth come only through continuous effort.”

To “stop doing” some things makes room for you to do the other “important” things that much better! Source:  Paul Higgans

To “stop doing” some things makes room for you to do the other “important” things that much better! Source: Paul Higgans

I’m not saying to throw out that to-do list. Oh no no no—that would be heresy! But give thought to developing your parallel “stop doing” list. Are you filling every moment of your day or do you take time out to quiet your mind and create mental space? Do you say “yes” to everything and constantly find yourself stretched thin or are you intentional about each commitment you take on? You might be saying to yourself right now, must be nice to have time and space to have a “stop doing list!” But regardless of your point in life or profession—athlete, artist, teacher, lawyer, high-powered corporate crusher—I’m confident that not only are you capable of creating one, but forcing yourself to time to develop it will empower you to discover a better you, personally and professionally. If you don’t believe me, ask Jim Collins and folks from his 11 good-to-great companies

I would love to hear what your “stop doing” list looks like and how it goes for you—let me know in the comments below!