On an average day, I have 3 to-do lists:

  • Work to-do list: We use a tool call Asana that makes it easy to keep all my tasks in one place, prioritize them, and assign due dates. I check this a bunch of times a day.
  • Home-family to-do list: I write mine down in my orange Moleskin notebook. I really love to write things down and find that it helps me remember them better.
  • A mental to-do list: This is absolutely NOT the most efficient thing but in addition to my work and family to-do lists I have this mental checklist of things I try to get done in a day.

That’s a lot of to-dos. There's rarely a day when I get everything done that I’d like, and while I keep telling myself that having a bunch of stuff to do is better than the alternative, this is often exhausting. It’s like there's no end to the numerous things that pop up that demand our attention and energy -- and sometimes just when I feel like OK, I'm getting close. Almost done for the day! something comes up and it’s a deflating feeling.

I'm constantly trying to learn how to be more productive, so here is something surprising I discovered recently. The best thing to do when you feel that overwhelming feeling of having too much on your plate is to do nothing for a while.

No, this is not a typo. The best thing to do when there is too much to do is to take some time to do none of it. To walk away from the to-do list, to take a break, to let your mind and your body relax in whatever way works best for you. For me this usually means going for a walk outside. I’m not very good at sitting still so putting on some tunes and going for a brisk walk outside is the best way for me to take a mental break. Perhaps you can try that, or if possible, take a short nap, have some tea, meditate if that’s your thing, read something fun or silly (but definitely not related to work ), or just chill out for a while.

I used to think this was just wasting time and how could I possibly waste time when I have so. much. to. do! But here’s what happens when you step away from doing and just let yourself be for a little bit: You get some clarity. Your mind stops racing. You can focus on the things that are more important and clarify for yourself which things on your to-do list can wait or not even be there. You feel more energized to tackle the important ones.

As a culture, at least in America, we are horrible at doing nothing. You don’t see a lot of newspaper articles about people relaxing, but many about people accomplishing things or doing incredible life feats. But if you’re always running, always trying to get more done, you’re likely not focusing on what’s most important and are running yourself down without finding new pockets of energy.

So try it. When you have too much to do, do nothing for a while. It might be something you find super challenging to do, but here’s a great old Zen saying to help inspire you:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day.

Unless you're too busy: then you should sit for an hour.

Just like meditation, doing nothing for a while can clear your mind and make you feel like you actually have a lot more time in your day to get stuff done.