An economic theory developed in 1817 can help you cut your to-do list in half

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Most mornings, while I drink my coffee, I jot down a to-do list. “Call bank,” I write. “Respond to one zillion emails. Clean kitchen. Prepare for meeting. Write article. Read friend’s cover letter. Go for jog.” This is not a list of things that I will actually do. It’s more a list of things to remember to feel guilty about not doing later, when it is nighttime and I am back home, in bed, staring up into the darkness.

The problem with my lengthy to-do lists is that they are utterly unrealistic. And yet one really does need to call the boring old bank and respond to mountains of emails, etcetera. Or at least, I thought I had to do all those things—until Tiffany Dufu, author of the new book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, taught me about the theory of comparative advantage.

In Drop the Ball, Dufu—an activist for women’s issues and chief leadership officer at the professional networking startup Levo—encourages women to stop striving for perfection in both their professional and personal lives. Most women seeking a better work-life balance don’t need some secret formula for success, she says; a lot of us are simply taking on too much.

To figure out how to prune your to-do list, Dufu recommends using the theory of comparative advantage, a principle developed by the classical economist David Ricardo in 1817 to explain the benefits of free trade. Ricardo’s theory holds that countries do not produce all the goods they require simply because they can produce them. Instead, they consider opportunity cost. “Countries focus on producing the goods they can produce well with less effort, and import the rest of the products from other countries,” says Dufu. “That’s the fundamental basics of how our world order has allowed countries to prosper.” This is also how countries develop specialties, from German cars to Thai rice.

The principle can be applied to our personal productivity, too. Dufu first learned about comparative advantage at a management training session, where she was taught how bosses can use the concept to decide which tasks to delegate and which ones were the best use of their time and energy. “For example,” she writes in Drop the Ball, “as a seasoned nonprofit fund-raiser, I might be better than my staff at drafting annual fund letters, but I brought the most value in face-to-face meetings pitching major donors. No one else on my team could do that.” So it made sense for her to let go of letter-writing—even if she was really good at it—and concentrate on forging connections with philanthropists.

Dufu realized that she could apply the theory to her home life as well. At the time, she was frequently overwhelmed by her domestic responsibilities as a wife and the mother of a young child. So she scrutinized her to-do list, asking herself which were the tasks that only she could do in order to realize her major goal as a parent: to raise a conscious global citizen.

The process showed Dufu which tasks simply weren’t that important in the grand scheme of things—which meant that she could scratch them off her to-do list, guilt-free. “I used to think it was really important to marinate meat,” Dufu says. “I thought you had to do it the night before for it to taste good. Now I’m laughing at that.”

Other tasks, like booking a dentist appointment for her child, really did need to get done. But Dufu didn’t necessarily have to be the one to do them. In this way, the law of comparative advantage can help women—who still tend to shoulder a disproportionate amount of caregiving and housework responsibilities compared to men—figure out how to lighten their load by leaning on their support systems. That might mean asking a partner to pick up the dry cleaning and take care of the mail, or relying on a neighbor to drop the kids off at school.

Applying the theory of comparative advantage to your to-do list involves some soul-searching. “We live our lives by default, kind of like the ringtone on your iPhone that never changes because it’s working fine,” Dufu says.

But if we each think of ourselves as a country, what are the things we really want to be known for? France has great wine; Mexico has delicious avocados; Japan’s got a lock on kawaii characters. As for me, I’m still figuring out what my top exports are. But I know that I want writing to be one of them—so it makes sense to devote energy and resources to finishing this article. A sparkling stovetop, by contrast, is nice to have. But in the big picture, I’m cool with some splatter. Consider that ball dropped.