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Leaving Things Undone


Who has a to-do list?  We all do!!!  It could be a list on your computer, a bunch of tasks you have on your calendar, or a list that exists purely in your head.  Either way, we all have a task list that we need to knock out each day.  With the lists we make, we focus on the things we need to get done.  As we notice something that needs to be fixed, we add it to the list.  If someone asks for something, we add it to the list.  Before we know it, our list is huge!!!  Then day after day, we try to knock things out, but more and more are added.

We stress out about not getting everything done on our list.  We become even more stressed as the list gets longer and we find that there are some things on the list that have been on there for days, weeks, or even months.  These items on the bottom of the list just are not as important as everything else that comes up.  Instead of being stressed out about what isn’t done, perhaps we should consider this quote from the Hokkien Chinese philosopher, Lin Yutang:

“Besides the noble act of getting things done, master the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.”

Master The Noble Art Of Leaving Things Undone

Everything doesn’t need to be done.  As a matter of fact, everything is a never ending list of things that you will never be caught up on.  The challenge Lin Yutang has given us is to look at our list and identify what is essential and what is simply unnecessary.  We tend to put things on our list that are not important, or don’t really have to be done at all.  If you think this isn’t true, look at your list.  What has been on there for months now that hasn’t been done?  Anyone complaining?  If not, does that list item HAVE to be done?  Probably not.  This is where Lin Yutang is saying that we have to master identifying the unnecessary and leave them undone, so we can focus on the necessary.

An Example From My Book

In my book, I wrote about a web service that would keep failing with an encryption error that would happen every few days.  After much research, the simplest approach to fixing it would be to reboot the machine.  The customer would simply call saying the web server couldn’t be reached, and I would restart it.  This always solved the problem.  For a few weeks, this was happening 2-3x a week, so I decided I needed to upgrade the server, but that would take time away from some very important projects.  Instead of rebuilding it right away, I added it to my list.  Well, it has been almost two years now, and the server has not been rebuilt.  And for the most part, the problem has gone away.  It may happen every few months now, but not urgent enough to have it fixed.  With all the other important projects, the server rebuild is nonessential.

Final Thoughts

We tend to let ourselves get overwhelmed when we have a to-do list that seems to just grow and grow.  The list seems insurmountable and we feel like just giving up.  Instead of giving up, I challenge you to really review your list.  Look for the things that HAVE to be done and the things that DON’T have to be done.  With some scrutiny, I am sure you can find some nonessentials on your list.  Take them off your list and let them be.  Or maybe add them to another list you tuck away somewhere and maybe get to one day, but not urgent.  This will help you identify what’s important and what is not.  By pairing down your list, you will be much more effective at getting the right things done, and feel a bit less stressed doing them.

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