Why Quitting Is the Secret to Ultimate Productivity

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about myself, my business, and how to best manage my personal and professional goals along with my responsibilities as a wife and mother. The tasks seem never-ending and put me into a constant state of overwhelm. I know, instinctively, that this is not sustainable. Either I find a solution or wait until I hit a wall of exhaustion, the latter not really being an option when it comes to even minimum-level productivity.

So I have three options: 1) Do nothing and continue to stay overwhelmed and overworked until I’m physically exhausted and congratulating myself for simply having gotten out of bed, 2) outsource what can be done by others, or 3) declutter my life by saying goodbye to and quitting things that are probably not as important as I think they are.

Given that option 1 isn’t a realistic option, I’m already a proponent of and have taken steps towards option 2. I outsource things I can afford that take my focus away from important things I love. This could be house cleaning or splurging on grocery delivery or having someone mow my yard. I do a great job at outsourcing these things, however, I haven’t made a lot of progress with option 3.

Quitting as Your Best Productivity Secret

I’ve historically been a failure at quitting. I want to do it all so I keep squeezing in more things. I want to be at school events for my kids, work with clients, develop new services for my business, write blog posts like this one, record and produce podcasts, attend conferences, read a book every now and then, watch television, make dinner, sit down to eat dinner, have time in the evening with my family, get up early to work out… How’s that working for me? It’s not. I give up one thing, then I take on two more. I always seem to end up juggling too much or spreading myself too thin.

I need to make room in my life to focus on putting 100% of my efforts into high-value tasks and to try new things, so I am determined to say goodbye to a sizeable portion of my to-do list. Inspired by this article on 99u by time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders, I decided to go “all-in” on option 3. I’m quitting. It sounds like a cop-out, but quitting in this context isn’t so bad. For example, I quit watching TV to make room for a hobby that I love. And I quit trying to be everything and do everything, and have started to question what my to-do list says about my productivity.

Saunders says:

Check your to do list. See that one item? The one that’s been there for weeks? Before you beat yourself up about how yet again, you haven’t done something you’ve been dreading, ask yourself the question: Do I really need to do this?

If the answer is “no,” drop it from your list. Sure there are some activities in life that you must do—if you don’t get your tax documents in on time, bad things could happen. But there are many, many other parts of your life where you have a great deal more control than you think.

Instead of continually trying to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do, let them go. Without the emotional weight and mental clutter of keeping things on your agenda that don’t absolutely need to be there, you’re much freer to rapidly move forward on what you really do want and need to get done.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started making a list of everything I do each day down to the minute. I’m looking for activities, things and actions that I can quit and make room for those things that if I died tomorrow I would want to go back and do today. I decided to quit anything that doesn’t live up to those standards.

When Failing Leads to Focus

Guess what? Nothing bad happened. No one hates me. I didn’t disappoint my family, friends, or clients. It made me realize that, while we typically see quitting as a failure (see also: the gym you joined that you haven’t seen in a month), it’s actually a smart strategy that protects your time and allows you to focus on the things that are “must-dos” and what you see as really important.

New York Times best-selling author and the CEO of GrowthLab.com, Ramit Sethi, says that quitting three bad habits doubled his productivity. He said, “When I first started my business, I personally responded to every email. There were hundreds, and I responded to Every. Single. One. As the business grew, those hundreds swelled to thousands. I found myself drowning in emails… with no-one to blame but myself.”

Once Sethi decided to stop living up to a false persona that he created (“the CEO superhero”), he started reading all emails, but only responding to some. He also stopped his habit of finishing books he started, even if he lost interest. If he doesn’t love it within 50 pages, he moves on to the next.

Finally, he decided to stop working so hard all the time. If you’re an entrepreneur or business owner, this might seem impossible. It isn’t, especially if you surround yourself with the right people (delegates) and focus on the swiftly moving parts of your business. It’s also imperative to allow yourself time to recover from your hard work. Sethi said, “What I learned is, we can treat work like high-intensity interval training at the gym. When it’s time to run, run HARD. Go all out, until your lungs burn and muscles quiver. However, when it’s time to recover, RECOVER.”

Recovery Drives Productivity and Creativity

I’m buying into this 100%. I’ve decided to make myself the test case for quitting. I’ve hired a more-than-competent assistant. I will be a confident delegator. I will only watch television if it doubles as quality family time. I’m going to cast books aside if I don’t love them (or learn something) by chapter two. I’m going to cross things off of my to-do list that I really want to quit – grocery shopping, laundry, house cleaning, yard work, and social activities that make me wish I was anywhere else. I’m not going to add a thing, unless you count outsourcing and delegating. And I’m going to say no… ALOT. 

I’ve already felt the effects of increased productivity. I now have time to meditate, which is helping me learn how to be fully present in the moment and recover from the business of being busy. I went to a float spa (now on my to-do list under “Recover”). I’m happier, I feel more efficient, and I no longer feel guilty when I do something purely for the sake of personal pleasure, like having “do nothing” days with my family. Guess what? I still have time to onboard new clients, write, record podcasts, attend conferences, and meet deadlines.

I’ve talked with friends and colleagues about to-do list overwhelm and everyone seems to be dealing with the same issues I have. And they’re all interested in how to do less and accomplish more.

So, Future Quitters of the World, help me out: What have you quit that helped with your productivity? What do you wish you could quit? What do you do to recover? Leave a note in the comments!

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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