Doing Less

As someone who loves productivity and efficiency, it’s no surprise that my clients often bring coaching topics around getting more done and squeezing more into their day. In the past few months, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the frequency of those conversations. Every CEO I coach has brought it up in one form or another, typical of the drive that elevates someone to the CEO level or inspires them to found a company. But I’m also seeing it across other levels of leadership.

I put my wizards to work on this trend, and today, I’ll share some observations and suggestions.

A Story

By way of illustration, I’ll share a recent exchange with a client*. Earl is a highly successful, driven CxO with whom I’ve worked for nearly two years. He works hard and has numerous interests outside of work. He has strong self-awareness and is mindful of the need to unplug from work to make time for his partner, friends, and personal interests.

Earl described his coaching topic as follows. When he signs off work for the day, he wants to spend his evening on personally enriching activities, like working out, meditating, and reading. Instead, he feels too tired to do what he thinks he should and frequently finds himself on the couch, watching TV and doing “unproductive” things. He wanted to identify strategies to regain his energy and make better use of that evening time.

We used a coaching tool that supports neuroplasticity to identify the behaviors contributing to feeling tired and new behaviors that could help him shift his energy. He had a breakthrough moment with a brief activity that energized him, and he decided to do that at the end of the workday to shift and recharge. We were happy with the breakthrough, and he had a tool to support his goal.

Afterward, this session gnawed at the back of my brain for several days. It felt like a great result and an energizing coaching session. But I wondered if I should have dug deeper before we dove into the tool. Was finding a way to pack more into the day the best answer? Or was Earl tired because he had expended his body budget? Perhaps we should have explored ways to do less during the day, leaving more energy for the evenings, rather than looking for a “hack” to let him cram more in.

Doing Less

I have plenty of hacks in my bag of tricks to support getting more done in a day, and my Productivity Anthology is a great place to start if you are looking for tips in that area. Those systems can support us for sure. For most of us, inevitably we must grapple with a more significant challenge. We say yes to too many things. Or we work in an environment where we don’t feel in control of our workload. Or our state of wonder leads us down tributaries of learning and exploration that resist the constraints of linear time.

We need to assess our workload and commitments, decide what’s important, and commit to doing more of what is essential and less of what is not. Here are a few techniques to support this assessment:

Right Hemisphere Thinking – Freedom

Lean into your right hemisphere, embodying a space of freedom. I do this by “getting up in the balcony,” taking a big-picture view. Looking out the window from a few floors up can help with this.

Some specific tactics include:

  • Consider which commitments align with your values.
  • Consider which commitments align with your vision by connecting with your future self.
  • Consider the perspectives of the people that are close to you. Which commitments align with the relationships you want to strengthen?

Left Hemisphere Thinking – Structure

Lean into your left hemisphere, embodying a space of structure. I do this by focusing on the details and being detail-oriented, breaking things down into their component parts, and prioritizing rigorously.

Some specific tasks include:

  • Make a list. My blank sheet of paper exercise is my left-hemisphere approach to getting my arms around the to-do list. I write everything down. I categorize each item. I prioritize each item. I decide what can be delegated and what can be deleted, and then focus on the top priorities.
  • Use the 90% rule from Essentialism by Greg Mckeown. Give each commitment an importance score from 0 to 100. Then, reject anything that gets a score less than 90.
  • Another version of the 90% rule is to ask yourself whether this activity is a “Hell yes!” for you. If it isn’t, make it a “Hell, no!” and cross it off the list.

Integrate the Hemispheres

Ann Betz and others write about the goal of integrating the two hemispheres. Ultimately, we want a healthy integration of Structure and Freedom and the ability to flow gracefully back and forth between the two as circumstances require.

She offers the metaphor of a painter working on a mural. At times, the painter is up close, painting a specific area of the mural. This is left-hemisphere work, focused on the details. But the painter routinely steps back and takes in the entire mural to see how it’s developing. This is a right-hemisphere perspective. Back and forth, stepping in and painting, stepping back and taking it all in. This is integrating the hemispheres.

As you evaluate your priorities, be a painter. Step in and build the list. Step back and compare it to your values. Step in and prioritize. Step back and consider your relationships and what’s missing. It’s a dance.

Putting It Into Practice

Reflect upon your commitments and identify areas where you can do less to free up time and energy for where you want to do more.

  • Consider the big picture view, including your values, your future vision of yourself, and your key relationships
  • Consider the detailed view, building a comprehensive list of everything on your plate, categorizing it, prioritizing it, and focusing on what’s important
  • Practice integrating both hemispheres of your brain, dancing between Structure and Freedom.

Next week, we’ll discuss strategies to act upon those priorities and manage competing requests for your time and energy.


I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

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* Shared with permission. The name is changed to preserve anonymity.