The argument for doing less, having more time, and being less busy

Question: How many times on the regular do you respond to someone with, “Ugh, I’m so busy right now”? A lot, right? Okay, here’s another question: How many times have you used the “I’m too busy” line when you were supposed to meet up with coworkers for drinks or visit your best friend for the weekend or go to that yoga class you’ve been meaning to join? Yeah. That’s what I thought.  

The truth is, we’re a bunch of semi-happy workaholics who seem to thrive on jam-packed schedules, Google alarms, and side hustles, and we think that “relaxing” means being the most intense weekend warrior ever. How did we get here?

There are a couple of main reasons as to why this happens. One, capitalism, where “time is money.” And two, social media, where if you’re not doing something—and preferably loudly and proudly—then who are you, anyway? And, maybe most indicative of our digital age, why should we follow you? 

“With the advent and ubiquity of technology, access to endless information at an accelerating pace, as well as global competition, our culture has become obsessed with productivity, Dr. Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch, tells HelloGiggles. “People channel their self-worth into the amount they can accomplish. They equate busy-ness with importance and seek to quantify their quality of character through achievement.

According to Dorfman, there can be multiple negative effects on one’s mental and physical health, including burnout, when they’re addicted to busyness and productivity. But what I found most troubling is when she told me that by constantly “doing more,” we can actually “mute essential feelings of satisfaction and deplete the enjoyment gleaned from experiences.” That’s right: We’re doing all of this stuff to ultimately feel bad about ourselves and suck the living joy from our lives. Ugh. This simply means we’re merely surviving life, not thriving.

This is why, in a culture where “being busy” is worn like a badge of honor, I’m about to say something controversial: Let’s do less with our time. That’s right. Let’s take a rest. Let’s cut our to-do list in half. Let’s try doing nothing for a change. Let’s miss out on things, joyfully!

It’s a theory that Tonya Dalton, founder of inkWELL Press and author of The Joy of Missing Out knows well. Instead of fixating on the clock, working through lunch, and chasing multiple errands, Dalton tells HelloGiggles, “We have to begin finding the joy in missing out on that extra noise in our lives and instead find happiness in a life centered on what’s truly important to us. We have to let go of busy and actively choose to have the life we really want. If we start saying ‘yes’ to everything, we end up missing out on the things that are most important to us.”  

While doing more things that are meaningful to us sounds like a swell idea, it might cause anxiety for some people. After all, how can doing less actually make us feel better? 

Celeste Headlee, author of the upcoming book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underlivingcan relate. In her book, the journalist acknowledges our cultural obsession with multitasking and discusses studies, as well as stories from her own life, that prove it’s not only ineffective, but it’s also impossible to do successfully. Not to mention, it’s not super fun either.  

I started researching this issue because I was overwhelmed and constantly getting sick, she tells HelloGiggles. “[Now], I haven't been sick in months and my schedule has loosened up to the point where I am making my own sourdough bread and growing my own herbs and learning Spanish. Simply put, I'm happier and healthier without sacrificing any of my productivity. I'm not making less money and I haven't lost any of my standing in the wider world. In fact, more opportunities have come to me since I stopped working excessive hours, not less, and yet I have time now to throw parties and take long walks through the woods with my dog and watch movies with my neighbors.

When we do less, we get more. It seems counterintuitive, but as Dorfman says, “Doing less allows people to achieve ‘flow.’ They experience pleasure in the process of doing, as well as feelings of mastery and competence, which are essential for motivation.”  

While often people fear that doing less will lead to complacency, Dorfman, says, in fact, “it is this sense of competence, mastery, and pleasure, which prompts motivation. Hyper-productivity deprives and detracts from innate pleasure of experience. This pleasure is essential for ongoing emotional well-being, and moments of joy.”  

So how do we get our busy brains to embrace the idea of doing less so we can get more joy? We spoke to Dalton and Headlee for their best go-to tips.  

How to do less and enjoy your life

1 Understand that your brain needs rest.

The first step, according to Headlee, is to understand how the human body and brain work best. Your brain cycles between activity and rest, which is why it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough rest. “Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep every night and yet, many people believe they are an exception and can get by on five or six,” says Headlee. “So, make a daily schedule for yourself and make sure you’ve left enough time to sleep no less than seven hours of sleep.”

Rest doesn’t just mean sleep, either. It means doing something completely unconnected to work, says Headlee, which includes housework and social media. Because of this she also suggests ensuring that you’re including in blocks of time during the day where you’re not “doing” anything. Maybe that means taking a walk, reading for pleasure, or admiring your cat. Just make sure it’s totally unproductive.  

2Toss out your to-do list, and create a priority list instead.

Dalton recommends replacing your to-do list with a priority list. Because priorities differ for everyone, it’s key to map out where your values lie and determine what’s truly important to you. “Once you map out what is most important to you, it relinquishes that feeling of guilt that comes with saying ‘no’ to the things that don’t matter,” says Dalton.  

From there, she recommends ranking each item on your priority list, using three different levels:

  1. Escalate: for important and urgent matters that push you towards long-term goals and have a pressing deadline.  
  2. Cultivate: important and not urgent matters, that have more to do with personal growth, such as signing up for a class or balancing your budget. 
  3. Accommodate: unimportant but urgent. These have pressing deadlines but don’t accomplish our long-term goals, like a car tune-up or going to the doctor. 

“This way, your biggest priorities can take up the majority of your time,” she says.  

3Be grateful for what you have right now.

Our busyness equates with our thinking that we don’t have enough or we’re not enough, which is why, says Headlee, at some point, having more becomes a unique kind of stress.

“Owning a larger home, for example, means buying more furnishings, cleaning larger areas, and heating and cooling more square footage. The same is true of many acquisitions, she says. “The thrill of having something new diminishes quickly and then our stress levels rise as we feel the need to maintain these things and use them. We find this same pattern in relationships and work responsibilities. If the goal is well-being, we should learn to truly appreciate what we have before moving on to find something new.

So before you take on a new side hustle, volunteer for extra shifts to buy the latest [fill in blank], or try to date as many people as you can within a month because you really want to find The One, take a moment to ask yourself if you really need it. Will it make you happy? Or are you looking to fill a void? Then take a moment to appreciate what you have right now in your life that feels less stressful and more easy.  

4Learn how to say no.

For many people, no is one of the hardest words to utter, text, or type in email without a smiley face to soften the blow. However, it’s imperative when it comes to living a life that’s more authentic, says Dalton

Remember that every time you say no, you’re saying yes to something that is more important to you, such as quality time with your loved ones, taking control of your schedule and ultimately making yourself a priority,” she says. For those who have trouble with saying no, Dalton says it’s key to separate the request from the relationship. “We often forget that saying no to the request is not a rejection of the person. There’s no need to feel overly guilty. You’re just putting yourself and your priorities first—exactly where they should be!” If you need an example of to say no in the best possible, Dalton offers up her “Sandwich Strategy.”  

“The Sandwich Strategy is easy,” she says. “Imagine a standard, everyday sandwich: two pieces of bread with some kind of filling nestled in the middle. When we need to say no to an opportunity, the no is the meat of our message, so we simply sandwich it between two slices of kindness.”  

For example: I am so flattered you thought of me for this important committee. Unfortunately, I have several other activities I’ve committed to, so I’m unable to give it the time it deserves. I am thrilled, though, that you are pulling together a group of people for such a worthwhile cause! 

5Track your hours of what you do for a couple of weeks.

A good way of determining where your energy and time should go is by looking at where you spend it regularly. Keep a log of what you do every day for a week and how long you do it. This includes everything from checking emails to swiping through Tinder to doing actual work. “I think we have more free time available to us than we think,” says Headlee. “When I tracked my hours for a couple weeks, I realized that I was losing more hours to browsing the internet and checking my email than I knew. When I started limiting my time on Twitter and checking my email no more than once an hour, I found I had several free hours every day.”   

If you have similar results, Headlee says, she hopes you’ll do more of less.

“In broad strokes, sitting and chatting with a friend over lunch will reduce your stress and lift your mood, while hanging out on Facebook makes most people unhappy, she says. “I hope you will socialize more, since embodied social contact is extraordinarily good for your body, brain, and emotional health. I hope you'll use those hours pursuing a hobby or reading or doing crosswords or sitting in coffee shops or bike riding,

In other words, we hope you’ll do less of the stuff you think you should do, and the more of the stuff you love.