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4 Self-Care Habits That Involve Doing Less

Self-care advice to do more might not be what you need.

Key points

  • If your admin tasks are taking too much time in your day, look for how you can simplify your life.
  • When we allow ourselves to feel boredom, we become more creative.
  • We more readily think about solving problems and making improvements by subtracting rather than by adding.
Marga Santoso
Source: Marga Santoso

Self-care advice often asks us to add things to our to-do lists. If you already feel overwhelmed, that's not always helpful. Here are four types of self-care habits that involve doing less, not more.

1. Call "done" on the day.

People often talk about the 1-minute or 2-minute rule. This is the idea that if a task will take less than 1 or 2 minutes, do it as soon as you think of it. This can be helpful, but it can also be endless.

What I like to do is call "done" on the day. This is a point in the evening after which I will not do any more tasks, no matter how tiny. For example, if I notice the hand soap dispenser is almost empty, I'm not refilling it. That can wait until tomorrow.

There's no specific time I do this. It depends on what I need that day.

2. Limit your admin tasks.

The most important part of my workday is my morning deep work session. Before I start this, I do up to an hour of admin tasks. This might seem counterintuitive. Haven't you always been told to do what's most important first? I find myself too tired to do admin after I've done deep work, but I've learned from self-observation that doing up to an hour of admin tasks before starting my deep work doesn't jeopardize my deep work habit. (I write a lot more about the benefits of personalizing your habits based on your self-observations in Stress-Free Productivity.)

If you limit your admin tasks like this, you may find you can't get everything done. This can actually be useful. It can make it crystal clear when your life has become too complicated. We all need to do some admin in our lives (whether for work, or "life admin" like arranging medical appointments and paying bills). However, most of us probably don't want to spend more than an hour a day on it.

If your admin tasks are taking more than an hour a day (or whatever cap is consistent with your values), look for how you can simplify your life.

3. Create habits of long stretches of unfilled time.

A while ago, I realized that my child didn't know how to play by herself. If she didn't have a friend to play with, she would ask an adult to play "pretend" with her. So, I set about helping her improve that skill by allowing her to be bored more often. In the beginning, she sometimes spent 45 minutes complaining to me about being bored before eventually finding something imaginative to do—for example, throwing bath toys into the pool and using a stick to retrieve them, over and over.

Long stretches of unfilled time are useful for adults in the same way. When we allow ourselves to feel boredom, we become more creative. And we need mind-wandering time to do autobiographical thinking, in which we make sense of our lives and think about our values.

Try creating regular habits of long stretches of unfilled time. For example, you reserve the first weekend of every month as unfilled time, with no chores, errands, activities, or plans. Choose whatever frequency and timing appeal to you.

4. Practice subtracting.

Cognitive scientists have shown we more readily think about solving problems and making improvements by subtracting rather than by adding.

If you're up for a little mental challenge, try brainstorming different forms that subtracting could take. For example:

  • If you're updating a training manual, consider what you could take out, not what you could add.
  • Whenever you have a set of procedures, what can you omit?
  • Of all the things you say to your child in a day, how can you improve your parenting by not saying some of those things?
  • How can you improve your parenting by supervising your child less?
  • When you're packing for vacation, after you're done filling your suitcase, remove half of what you packed.
  • How could you enrich your vacation by seeing less?
  • For therapists, when would not stuffing your sessions with so much information help your clients more?
  • In your business, how might offering fewer options benefit your customers?

If you want to get better at subtracting, you'll need to practice it. We learn best when we have personal examples of success we can draw on. The more you can accumulate varied personal examples of when you improved your life or solved a problem through subtraction, the more compelling this strategy will become to you. As with anything, you can only learn so much by reading others' examples. Your own lived examples will be the most powerful reminders.


When Subtraction Adds Value:

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