“Sometimes our stop-doing list needs to be bigger than our to-do list.” —Patti Digh
Over the summer, my brother convinced me to try intermittent fasting. He’s lost a fair amount of weight using the method, as have other people I know.
Now, let me be clear, this is not an article recommending intermittent fasting (or any diet technique). This post is about something bigger.
Back to my conversation:
My brother was recommending intermittent fasting. I’m not in a place where I’m trying to lose a lot of weight, so that wasn’t a selling point for me. But I continued to ask him questions because I’m always interested.
One answer he gave to a question of mine piqued my interest.
I asked him, “Seems like eating only a few hours each day would result in lower energy levels. Have you found that to be true?”
His response, which convinced me to give intermittent fasting a try, was this, “No, not at all. I have as much energy as ever. In fact, I often feel more productive during the day because I’ve cut out an entire meal.”
It was enough, at the very least, for me to give it a try. Three months later I’m still intermittent fasting. Again, not necessarily because I’m losing a whole lot of weight, but because I enjoy the lifestyle change (at least for now).
Because I have stopped doing one thing (eating breakfast), it has changed my entire morning routine—to something I prefer much more.
I used to spend a good portion of my morning cooking breakfast, eating breakfast, cleaning up breakfast, all while listening to the news. When I was finished, I would jump into some work projects—always a little bit distracted by the news I had just heard while drinking coffee and eating eggs.
But removing that one meal has entirely reoriented my morning.
Now I begin the day, because of the extra available time, with solitude, meditation, and faith reflection. That small change has brought new meaning to my morning.
The removal of one practice/habit sparked a significant change in my life.
As I began to reflect on how removing a meal has transformed my morning, I began to notice elsewhere in my life that this has happened.
When I first began this blog, I had two young children, was working full-time, and had just begun minimizing the possessions in my home, room-by-room. And yet, I felt compelled to write and document my journey (that was the original intent of this blog by the way).
To find time to journal our progress, I almost entirely cut television out of my life. Rather than sitting on the couch in the evening to watch a sporting event or entertainment series, I sat down to write.
The removal of one habit sparked a new one in my life.
Additionally, as I minimized my possessions and freed up time that was previously spent cleaning or organizing, I began going to the local gym to get my physical body in a healthier place.
Or, when I took on a 40-day experiment to not use my phone for anything but actual phone calls, I freed up countless hours in my week that were normally wasted scrolling social media or playing apps on my phone. In the time recovered from the removal of those habits, I became more attentive to the people and conversations around me.
It’s an interesting reality that happens every day (we always trade one activity for another) but we rarely actively and intentionally apply the principle to our lives.
The removal of one activity/habit/practice/commitment makes room for a new one to surface. Stopping one low-value action results in a life-enriching opportunity to add new ones.
How do we go about making this change?
1. Recognize the importance of having a Stop-Doing List.
Warren Buffett once said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
He’s right. And that truth summarizes the importance of removing activities that do not contribute to our success in life (which I don’t confuse with financial wealth, by the way).
The first step to intentionally removing an action, for the sake of replacing with another, is to know it’s worth the effort.
2. Choose an action to remove that doesn’t add value.
I listed several examples above: television, phone games, possessions, even breakfast.
My opening story talked about removing breakfast—but that may not be appropriate for you (or even healthy).
Instead, think through your day or week. What is one low-value activity you could remove for a period of experimentation? Question everything.
Maybe it’s something you’ve never considered removing (I certainly never thought I’d skip breakfast for 4 months in a row).
Or maybe it’s something you genuinely enjoy (I certainly thought I liked watching television in the evening).
3. Remove one piece rather than the entire activity if that’s easier.
This doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. When I cut out breakfast, I didn’t cut out eating entirely. When I cut out television in the evening on weekdays, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t still watch football with my son on Sunday afternoons.
When I cut out games from my phone for 40 days, I didn’t ditch the device entirely
If you’re struggling to place an item on your Stop-Doing List, try thinking smaller.
Maybe cut out television on Mondays and Wednesdays. Stop checking email in the morning. Cancel just one social obligation. Or avoid just one time-wasting website during the week.
4. Commit for 21 days.
Add that low-value activity to your Stop-Doing List and commit to it for a short, 21-day experiment.
The 21-day experiment approach will further your resolve. “The habit change isn’t forever,” you’ll tell yourself, “it’s just for 21 days.”
Those three weeks will give you enough time to see what you think about your new normal, but it won’t seem overly excessive. If, after 21 days, you want to keep the new habit, you’ve basically already started it in your life.
5. Fill your opening with a worthwhile activity.
Remember the purpose of this exercise. Stopping one action results in a life-enriching opportunity to add a new one. So, don’t just remove an activity, fill that new time with something valuable and productive to the life you want to live.
Replace that removed habit with reading, exercising, solitude, writing, or art. Start a new hobby or pick up an old one. The choice is yours, just be sure to be intentional about picking something.
6. Don’t forsake rest.
Just to clarify here, I’m not talking about removing all aspects of rest or relaxation from your life so you can fill your life with even busier pursuits.
I’m talking about removing a low-value activity (however you define that) with a more healthy and productive habit in your life.
Rest and relaxation are still essential to intentional living.
7. Re-evaluate after 21 days.
After the 21-day experiment has concluded, reassess. Are you happy with your new habit or daily structure?
After a month of intermittent fasting, I could recognize that I enjoyed my mornings (and rest of the day) more without breakfast (who knew?). Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll never return to it. But it does mean, for today, I am happier and more grounded than I was before. And for that, I am thankful.
You may have a different experience, but you can always return to the way life used to be.
I just want to encourage you today, to try something new in your life, by intentionally removing something else. That is, after all, the very essence of minimalism.