Daily practices for a calmer, more productive life — and relief from chronic busyness.
There is an old story of a man riding very fast on a horse. As he rides past a friend who is standing on the side of the road, the friend yells, “Where are you going?” The rider turns toward his friend and yells, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave many of us feeling like that person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our daily, incessant busyness — too much to do and not enough time, and the pressure to produce a to-do list and tick off items by each day’s end — seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us.
Sometimes the day’s furious deadlines make us believe we are so busy that we don’t even have a minute — much less 10 or 20 — to stop, pause and reflect. Over time, busyness dulls us. Ironically, this state of chronic overwork means we have even less time to pull out the grinding and polishing stones we need to regain our sharp edge. We become accustomed to using an increasingly dull saw, and soon we are expending all kinds of unnecessary and ineffectual effort for less than ideal results.
As a result of this vicious cycle, our perceptions become skewed. We convince ourselves that we can’t do the very things that we most want to, the things that would make all our efforts easier, more effective and more satisfying.
Granted, we usually become overbusy for laudable reasons — we are pursuing our dreams, being responsible citizens, assisting our family members or colleagues, and seeking happiness and freedom. Having a lot to do is not innately a bad thing. Most of us love being active. But when our busyness makes us feel depleted rather than complete, when we run down the path toward freedom and accomplishment but find them getting further away, it’s a sign we’ve pushed beyond productivity.
Fortunately, we don’t need to do anything extra to return to our original state of sharpness and unbridled full-functioning and, indeed, even to accomplish more. We only need to do less of what gets in the way.
What do I mean when I say that you can do less and yet accomplish more? The guiding principle is that when we approach any task in the right spirit, we become more successful and efficient at it. When we engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors, we accomplish more of whatever we set our hearts to.
Thus, by recasting our attitudes, we reap tangible, practical benefits: We then “do less” by jettisoning activities we think are urgent but aren’t; we “do less” by streamlining our efforts and eliminating unnecessary or reflexive responses.
To achieve these external real-world benefits, however, we first have to turn inward and “do less” within ourselves. This method of doing less involves a simple yet profound transformation. It’s a different way of being in the world.
At core, doing less and accomplishing more is about aligning your actions with your values and your particular passions. That means you may use this approach and still wind up with just as much activity packed into your days, but you will be less scattered and distracted, and you will accomplish more of what matters to you: more of what serves your deepest purpose and intention; more of what brings you satisfaction and connection with others; more of what you believe really needs to get done.
The Less Manifesto focuses on engaging less in five self-defeating habits in order to experience more ease — more composure and better results — within ourselves and with others.
The five core activities to engage in less in our work and in our lives are: Fear, Assumptions, Distractions, Resistance and Busyness.
The point is to find more meaning, more happiness and greater productivity (as well as productivity of a less exhausting sort!) through understanding and changing these specific patterns and habits in our lives. In the Less Manifesto that follows, I describe each of these five arenas and provide exercises and practical advice for how to turn these negative habits around.
It is no accident that fear is the first section of the Less Manifesto. It is the primary thing we need less of. Fear can certainly be a useful ally. It can focus us, keep us safe, and at times it may keep us alive. But it can also be an enormous hindrance.
When we are afraid, our first impulse is to tighten our bodies and shut down our minds — we become the opposite of receptive and playful. Reducing fear (and its physical manifestation, anxiety) and opening oneself up to new possibilities is the first step toward a more lasting sense of accomplishment. Transforming fear is not a one-time thing, however; we must develop ongoing strategies and habits to continually lessen it.
Here are a few ways you can minimize fear’s grip on your life, and your consciousness:
List your fears and act. Increasing awareness of fear helps alleviate it, but taking concrete actions to address our fears is a necessary step as well. On a sheet of paper, under a column titled “My Fears,” list all the fears you can think of. Be specific. Then label the adjacent column “Next Actions,” and list any concrete actions that would directly address or quiet these fears. Then, take steps to follow up on that advice.
Practice generosity. Generosity is an antidote to fear. Real generosity (the kind that is not self-centered or self-serving) requires that we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be curious, vulnerable and accepting. This means saying yes to all facets of life, even the difficult ones. The generosity of acceptance feels like doing less, but it brings us more. It is amazingly regenerative. Experiment with the practice of generosity. Give your attention, your caring and your curiosity to those you live with and work with, without expecting anything in return. Say yes to yourself and to others. Notice and write about your acts of generosity as well as the generosity of others. You will find your fear diminishing.
Schedule a retreat. Before you can transform your fearful patterns, you need to fully recognize them. This may require stepping outside of your regular routines and life patterns long enough to feel where fear has a grip on you. Taking a personal retreat — or even a weekly “Sabbath” day — is a great way to create this space. During your retreat time, do not engage in anything that resembles commerce (work, shopping, etc.) or your typical forms of entertainment and distraction (television, computer, etc.). Instead, slow down, find a new environment, let your mind get quiet enough to perceive what root fears are driving your overbusyness, and then re-enter and re-create your world with greater awareness.
To function in everyday life, we are required to make all kinds of assumptions about the causes of events and what will happen next. But our predictions and assumptions are often inaccurate. When we assume wrongly, conflicts ensue, and vast quantities of time and energy are wasted. That’s why letting go of false assumptions is an essential part of the do-less-accomplish-more dynamic.
Many times, our false assumptions are based on our fears of what people think, so the first two categories of the Less Manifesto — fear and assumptions — work together. Here are some helpful techniques for reducing false assumptions and increasing mutual understanding:
Getting feedback. If we want to make fewer false assumptions and have more composure and effectiveness in our lives, we have to start by expanding our perceptions. One effective way to do this is to regularly solicit feedback from trusted and truthful allies who can see things we don’t — including our opportunities to improve. Rather than pose a negative question (e.g., “What am I doing wrong?”), an effective method is to ask, “What (or how) can I do better?” Implicit in this question is your desire to improve and to help the other person. Asking for feedback is the first step, but the important next step is active listening in the form of “looping” — which is summarizing what another person has said to confirm that there is understanding without judgment. Next week, either at work or at home, why not try asking one person in your close sphere for feedback on a particular issue or realm where you sense your effectiveness could be improved?
Identify triggers. Someone says or does something, and our body suffers an almost immediate chemical reaction. Anger arises, followed by anxiousness or sadness or self-doubt. Usually, when we experience this sort of palpable disruption or upset, it’s because we’ve been caught up in an old, disturbing pattern or memory. Often, it’s a pattern rooted in a long-ago traumatic event or childhood experience.
The first positive step to take when you’re triggered is to simply name what’s happened: “Oh, I’ve been triggered.” The next step is to pause. Do not react or respond right away. Instead, breathe, notice your assumptions about what the triggering event means, and allow your feelings to settle. Once you feel clear, arrange to talk with the person you felt triggered by. You might choose to share that you were triggered, or not, but indicate that you are interested in hearing more. Listen to what is being said in the present moment, which may be very different from your assumptions.
Speak up. The “no festering” rule: When we have a problem with someone and we don’t talk to that person about it honestly and respectfully, our fears and resentment often fill the silence with false assumptions that can make the situation worse than it really is. By instituting a “no festering” rule, you’ll be amazed at how much mental busyness you’ll avoid.
Distractions and interruptions are such a part of modern life that we don’t realize how hard it is to concentrate. We’ve almost lost the ability to pay attention to the fact that we’re not paying close attention.
Here are some ways to lessen undermining distractions and replace them with positive distractions — ones that provide mental relaxation, offer small breaks, and support intense focus and effort:
Work like a great athlete. That means working in bursts of peak activity punctuated by mini-breaks. Such breaks allow our minds and bodies to relax and recover in preparation for the next burst of focused intensity. Trying to work without breaks is counterproductive. It opposes our natural, fluctuating energy patterns, leaving us mentally scattered and far more vulnerable to both distractions and burnout. [For more on this, see “Give Yourself a Break” in the July/August 2009 archives.]
Develop and stick to routines. Someone once asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “If you only had one word to describe the secret of happiness, and of living a fulfilling and meaningful life, what would that word be?” Without hesitating, the Dalai Lama replied, “Routines.” Once established, routines require little effort, tracking or decision-making; by definition, they become a consistent part of our lives. Routines are ways of doing that don’t require much conscious “doing.” This is what makes routines such powerful levers for supporting behaviors, whether positive or negative. Try to engage in positive routines, such as daily meditation, exercising three days a week, and writing every day in a journal.
Retrain Pavlov’s dog. We tend to react to email and phone calls the way Pavlov’s dog reacted to a bell — we come running at once. Instead, learn to check your email and respond to voicemail only two or three times a day (sometimes, of course, we have truly time-sensitive matters we need to resolve, but these situations are probably less frequent than we think). Also schedule uninterrupted “think time” for reflection at the beginning and end of each day.
Everything changes. Yet we often find it difficult to accept change and the uncertainty that goes along with it. Resisting reality — including the reality that things change — consumes enormous amounts of energy and produces very little but frustration. Moving beyond our judging, resisting reactions about “what is” allows us to see our lives and the world in a clearer light and respond accordingly. We become more effective because we can react more consciously and appropriately to the situation at hand.
Here are some strategies for reducing resistance to change and increasing your personal and professional effectiveness:
Make precise observations. We often generalize problems and difficult situations as being “bad” without fully recognizing what about them is upsetting to us. We feel something is out of alignment, yet we don’t take the next step of looking more closely at the situation and at what our options are. Avoidance of the real issue becomes a way of resisting it, but also an obstacle to seeing the opportunities the situation may present. The clearer you are about your actual situation, the less you will grasp at your ideas or fears about it, and the more equipped you will be to handle it effectively.
In order to help you sharpen your powers of observation, pay attention to what is right in front of you (almost like a meditation): What do you see, hear, smell, taste and touch? For at least five minutes, try to take in every tiny aspect of your physical environment. Then translate this level of observation to a present life challenge or change. Observing precisely lessens judgment-based resistance and opens up possibilities for innovation, insight and transformation.
Be empowered and proactive. When we feel overburdened, it’s natural for us to retreat into thoughts of victimhood — a very passive form of resistance. But we always have the option of shifting into a more creative and empowered role.
If you want to do less, to simplify your life, then start by being precise about how. You may long to feel less busy, but to achieve this, you need to translate it into specifics: What are your benchmarks, timelines and measurements for downsizing your workload or adjusting your schedule? What are the activities you wish to let go of or do less of? What are you willing to do to accomplish these changes? What other adjustments or healthy activities will support your goal of feeling less hurried?
Engage in integrative thinking. Rather than remain stuck in an either/or dilemma, feeling like you must walk down one of two divergent paths, try to reimagine a problem, or combine the best of both solutions, to create a new and better path. Choose a problem and make a list of pros and cons of each choice you see for solving the dilemma. Now compare those lists of pros and cons. Where exactly do the choices conflict, and where is there room for integration and agreement?
In our more-faster-better world, a life filled with extreme busyness can seem inevitable. Having “too much to do” becomes such a compelling story that it can be difficult to remember that it is a story we choose to write.
To do less and accomplish more, it’s necessary to find “the one who is not busy,” the voice (that all of us have) of stillness, authentic power, or relaxation and calm. You must access and develop the part of you that is willing to do less even in the midst of your engaged, exuberant, unpredictable and sacred life.
Here are a few ways to access the one who is not busy:
Consciously wander. Insight and creative solutions can be inhibited or blocked by being overly focused. In order to invite serendipity into your life, try scheduling a 10-minute break every afternoon. Walk outside, or even just pay attention to your walking or sitting, to your breath, to whatever is around you. Let go of any agenda, or trying to solve any problem. As thoughts arise in your consciousness, note them, but always return your awareness to walking, breath, body and environment.
Embrace paradox. We all embody a number of paradoxes. For example, I am shy and solitary, yet I love speaking in front of people. Sometimes, we get caught up trying to resolve internal contradictions, thinking that if we can, we will solve our busyness. Instead, this effort can become the cause of our busyness and our scrambled bewilderment.
Try listing the paradoxes that describe yourself. In what ways do they embody contradiction and inconsistency? Next, explore each of these paradoxes in a journal. On a regular basis (perhaps each morning or evening), choose one of your paradoxes and describe it more fully. How does it express itself in your actions and emotions? If we can embrace and digest the truth of paradox, it can increase tolerance, respect and understanding, as well as act as a bridge for solving all sorts of problems.
Make sure you are in alignment. If you’re working harder than ever and still not accomplishing very much, you might be suffering from a lack of alignment — which means that it’s time to make sure all your efforts support your goals. Emphasizing alignment (internally, in relationships and organizationally) is key for reducing busyness and increasing effectiveness.
When it comes to bringing alignment to all the voices inside yourself, creating consensus is much more effective than majority rule. To get a sense of this, try naming something you’ve been trying to accomplish — perhaps finishing a project or losing some unwanted weight. Write that objective down, or say it out loud. Now, notice all of the other voices that have something to say about your intention — voices of excitement, doubt, fear, worry. Write down or say what each of these voices is saying. Then go back to your original vision and speak it out loud again. Finally, find a way of phrasing an integrated response from all of your internal voices — in a way that acknowledges specific doubts and fears but also honors all the positive reasons why you want to pursue your goal. In the future, when you feel like you are losing alignment on an issue, or losing motivation, refer back to this statement.
You may find that completing the contemplative doing-less exercises like those I’ve just described is quite challenging for you at first, particularly if you tell yourself you’re too busy to do them. If you embrace even a few of them, however, the clarity of mind and purpose they elicit can help you achieve far more than you might ever have imagined possible. And of course, just doing less for its own sake can also be startlingly transformative, pleasant and very worthwhile.
It comes down to what you choose to experience and contribute in your lifetime. Every life has great potential meaning, but the meaning of our lives can often be obscured by the fog of constant activity and plain bad habits.
By recognizing these habits and allowing them to evolve, we can begin to more deeply appreciate and savor the ways we contribute to the workplace, enjoy the sweetness of our lives, and share openly and generously with the ones we love.
Less busyness leads to appreciating the sacredness of life. Doing less gives rise to more love, more effectiveness, more internal calmness and a greater ability to accomplish more of what matters most — to us, and by extension, to others and the world.