Getting things done by doing less

We all know that it’s a big step to apply theoretical knowledge onto your actual life. These next few bits I learnt about productivity however, I’ve been able to successfully implement in my own life in the last few months. So now it’s time for me to share them with you.

My source for these little tips is the Dutch book “Nooit meer te druk” by Tony Crabbe. I kinda had to struggle through this book, since it didn’t always manage to capture my attention, and I didn’t really like the tone of voice used by the author. But as it stands, I’m really happy I persisted anyway.

I read a lot of books for fun, but if you ask me specific details about a book even a few days later, I probably won’t be able to answer your question. Sometimes I even find myself wondering how that thrilling book I finished last week actually ended… Is this normal, or should I worry about this?

When I noticed that even though I didn’t make any notes, a lot of the info from the book “Nooit meer te druk” still stuck in my head after two months, it got me thinking. If I actually remembered all this stuff, the author really did something right. I think it was a combination of repetition, plain and simple concepts, and very specific real world examples.

You’re busy?

One of the main focus points of the author was to make you realise that “I’m busy” is not a preferable state of mind. His view is that when you answer the question “how are you” with “- busy”, you’re doing something wrong and you’re letting others know as well. If you’re constantly busy, the author wonders: do you have a planning problem? Can’t you get your priorities straight? What effect will this have on the people around you, the people you love?

The author isn’t some kind of know-it-all, he’s just gone through all of this himself. He’s tried to turn his life around, by doing a lot of research and experimenting, and in his book he shares his personal learnings.

So how does how busy you feel relate to your happiness? Well, it affects your happiness in a few ways. Of course, as you can guess, you might not have as much time for yourself or for your loved ones as you would like. Maybe you’ve wanted forever to take up a hobby and you just can’t find the time. And maybe you don’t feel accomplished at work. All of this might affect your general happiness, and the power to change this is yours.

Deviating from your goals

Accomplishment and personal growth are big factors for lasting happiness. Let’s look at an example. When you start your working day, you might have a goal for this day, for instance: spending 8 hours on your exciting new project. When you get to the office you start by opening your mailbox, clearing out the new mails for the day. There might be some clients that you need to spend a little time on. During the day one of your colleagues comes to your desk, asking if you can help him out by spending some time on his project. You might also get a phone call. A client shouting in your ear to tell you something isn’t working out. You’ll probably have decided to answer all mails first, then help out your colleague, only to be distracted by the client on the phone. But what has happened to your exciting new project that you wanted to spend the whole day on? Nothing much, probably.

As you can see, this might affect your happiness. You are the one that should decide what’s important to you. If you have a clear goal, it’s a lot easier to make decisions. When you know your goals you can just ask yourself whether what you’re going to do helps you work toward that goal, and it’ll be easier to say no to things you shouldn’t be spending time on.

The theory is very simple. Let’s say I want to become a better amateur photographer, so I can stick to posting original content on my blog, instead of using stock photography. I might appoint 1 day a week to achieving this goal. Now here it comes: What might I do when I start the day? Should I check my messages and clear out my mailbox? Or does that not contribute to my amateur photography goal?

It’s strange, isn’t it, that even though it’s your life, you’re letting other people influence your output (what you achieve in a day). Shouldn’t you be the one to decide what you’ll be spending your time on?

The author of the book makes a point that in “getting things done” we’re just making things worse. What’s the point in getting more done in the same amount of time, when you’re not even working on the right things?

To achieve a state of not “being busy” but of “being productive” and working towards your goals, you need to decide what you spend your time on. And not the person on the other side of an email, call or other method of communication.

Defining your own output

Here are a few tips on sticking to your goals and to help you define your own output.


Does checking Facebook help you work towards your goal? Does iMessage? Whatsapp? LinkedIn? 9GAG? Depending on your goal it might, but probably not. You can help yourself to limit your distraction by disabling notifications or putting away your phone, or even blocking certain websites in your browser.

You could also try to limit the time you spend on checking your messages by allocating a few blocks of time during the day for this. For instance you could schedule 15 minutes for this before lunch, and 30 minutes after dinner. When you stick to these, you’ll probably feel more productive already.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you need to banish these social interactions from your life forever, but it’s very important to realise that these activities are just taking up time you could be spending on working towards your goals.

Defining your goals

And with this I don’t mean the big goals like “getting my degree”, but your actual day to day goals, to achieve that bigger goal.

The best way to start out is to write down your day to day goals. Does this sound cumbersome to you? Maybe, but it’ll be a lot easier to focus on your goals when they are clear, and when you can look back on your previous decisions. If you think of other stuff you want to do, just write them down on your todo list for the next day, so they won’t interfere with you keeping your goals for today.

I find you’ll have a lot clearer overview of what you should be focussing on the next day, than you have for the current day. When you would create a list of stuff you need to get done today, it’s harder to focus on your bigger goals and easier to get carried away by the smaller and less important tasks like checking your mail and going out for groceries. Therefore I always try to create a moment at the end of the day to define my goals for the next day. Since there is usually a little more distance between you and tomorrow at that moment, it’s a lot more clear what you priority for the next day should be.

Make sure you get your priorities straight and focus on your bigger goals. Does clearing your mailbox actually help you in developing that awesome project? Does going out for groceries help me to become a better amateur photographer? Or could you get away with not checking your mail for a day, or rummaging through the freezer to see if you can postpone your visit to the grocery store for a day?

Once you’ve written down your priorities, you can use them during the day to check if you’ve still got your priorities straight, or if you have let yourself become distracted. And if you did become distracted, you can gently move your focus back to your goals.

Creating a schedule

You can even take this one step further, by not only defining your goals, but also to create a schedule for the day. It’s easier to stick to your goals if you limit your time spent on mail and checking your social messages. It’s also important to not get carried away in achieving your goals, so make sure you’re taking breaks often enough throughout the day.

Timeframing your activities is also a great way to get better insights into how your time is devided. Just try it out: Imagine the time you would need to complete a task, write that down and see how much time you actually need. Did you finish way sooner? Did you take twice as much time? Either one doesn’t matter, as long as it helps you to have a realistic view on what you can and can’t do.

Try to stick to your schedule as you go. Don’t decide to read your mail anyway if you didn’t plan to or hop over to the grocery store for some extra lunch treats if you didn’t define that as one of your goals for today. That sounds harsh, but remember: when you defined your goals yesterday, these didn’t seem like activities you would want to spend your time on.

When creating your schedule for the next day, remember to take into account your learnings from today: what took more time than you expected and which task did you finish sooner? See if you can use that intel to create the perfect schedule for tomorrow.

It’s important not to overestimate yourself. Don’t schedule only half an hour on a task that might easily take you a full hour to complete. There’s no use in being too optimistic, because then you’re just working towards disappointing to yourself for not being able to stick to your schedule. And think of the wonderful feeling you’ll have when you actually schedule enough time to tick off of all your tasks tomorrow!

And remember, free time is important too, don’t just schedule tasks! When you’ve got your priorities straight and are working towards your goals, it’ll be easier to feel at ease and to relax. Instead of having that nagging feeling in the back of your head that tells you you haven’t been working towards your goals.

Are these suggestions new for you or did you know this all along? And would these tips help you to focus?

3 thoughts on “Getting things done by doing less

  1. Yay, it’s here! ?

    To answer your question if its weird of you immediately forget everything about a book: no it’s not. Or we’re both weird ?

  2. I very often answer the question “how are you” with “busy”, but mostly stating “lekker bezig”. However your message is clear: are we busy with the right things. That sure is something to think about!

  3. I very often answer the question “how are you” with “busy”, but mostly stating “lekker bezig”. However your message is clear: are we busy with the right things. That sure is something to think about!

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