You Really Can Accomplish More by Doing Less

7 min read

Robert* rushed into his session late, as usual. “Sorry,” he said breathlessly. “I know I’m always late. It seems like someone always pulls me into an urgent meeting right before I see you.”

“Okay,” I said. “Can you take a couple of minutes to catch your breath and settle in?”

He chuckled. “I feel like asking you if that’s really OK. I want to get everything I can out of the session, and I feel like the couple of minutes I might use to catch my breath could be used better for doing the work.”

I smiled. We had been discussing the issue of Robert’s drive to accomplish something every minute for several sessions. “I bet you can guess what I’m going to say in response to that,” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “You’re going to tell me that learning to take a couple of minutes to catch up to myself is probably one of the most important lessons I can take away from therapy. I’m still struggling with that idea.”

123RF stock image # 57385731 photog: dolgachov

123RF stock image # 57385731 photog: dolgachov

We live in a world in which doing more is seen as a good thing and doing less is seen as bad

Robert, of course, is not alone in this struggle. Working hard is viewed as the ultimate sign of being a good employee. Learning more, taking more and harder classes, doing more, and getting top grades are signs of being a good student. Early in their lives, children get the message that achievement is the path to happiness. And parents get the message that we need to fill our children’s lives—and our own—with activities to improve their minds and their bodies.

We don’t, however, put a lot of positive emphasis on quiet, relaxed moments. We may think of sleep as necessary, but many of us, like Robert, don’t really value the idea of rest for our brains and our bodies. We even bring the same ethic to our sleep habits. Instead of finding ways to gradually wind down and let ourselves relax enough to fall asleep each night, we work till the last minute, sometimes even in bed.

Studies have found that 1 in 5 people in the United States have trouble sleeping every night. Not a big surprise, since you have to be able to let go in order to sleep.

What If You Tried to Do Less Every Day Instead of More?

You might imagine that slowing down and doing less would make you lazy or inefficient. But scientific and anecdotal evidence show that downtime is crucial not just to emotional and physical health, but also to our ability to think, accomplish difficult tasks, and be productive. For instance, according to researchers at the Cleveland Clinic “taking breaks can improve your mood, boost your performance, and increase your ability to concentrate and pay attention.”

In other words, by doing less, you might actually be able to accomplish more, even to be more successful at what you do. How does that work?

Creativity is Fueled By Downtime

David Ogilvy, who founded one of the advertising companies on which the fictional company in “Mad Men” is based, wrote in his book Confessions of an Advertising Man that he required his creative staff to get out of the office regularly for exercise, time in nature, and cultural and art events. Long before we had studies to back him up, he was convinced that creativity was fueled by downtime.

Robert told me that he had gotten exactly that message from both his physical therapist and his tennis instructor after suffering from tennis elbow and bursitis in his thirties. A driven competitor, Robert had difficulty taking time off from his hard-hitting workouts, but he had been told that the only way to get better was to give his shoulder and elbow time to heal.

When he started playing again, his tennis instructor repeated the theme. “He tells me that I don’t have to hit so hard to make a point,” Robert said. “He keeps repeating that strength is important, but technique is even more important. And even weirder? He showed me how I could get more power into a shot when I used less muscle effort.”

Doing Less Can Help You Be More Mindful and Enjoy What You Accomplish

Using less effort to be more powerful would not surprise many mindfulness practitioners. Marc Lesser writes and teaches about mindfulness to CEOs and leaders around the world. He writes that slowing down and paying attention can help us “craft a productive life that we truly feel good about.” He writes that this kind of attitude shift can eliminate some self-defeating behaviors, and, that “doing less helps us savor what we do accomplish.”

Robert was afraid that if he tried to cut back on what he was doing, he would never be promoted at work. His girlfriend might start to get bored with him. His friends might not admire him. He would get flabby because he wasn’t exercising enough. And he would feel embarrassed, ashamed, unproductive, and ineffectual.

I asked him if he thought all of these things would occur if he tried doing a little less every day for a week. He said he thought one week wouldn’t destroy all his hard work, but that he couldn’t imagine what it would look like. “Would I skip a workout one day? Or just do a few less reps? Or run five minutes less?” I said that any of those could count for doing less.

He wanted to know what it would look like at work, so I asked him to run through a few possibilities. “I guess I could stop working fifteen minutes earlier a couple of days. Maybe I could not answer all my emails as soon as they come in.” I nodded, and he named a few other possibilities. “But really, those are such small things. Would that really make a difference?”

I said that I didn’t know, but that I wondered if he’d be willing to try for a week. “It might be something different every day,” I said. “Maybe as you start to get used to the idea, other things will occur to you. And then we can talk about it next week, and see if it does make a difference. Or not.”

Robert was so eager to talk about what had happened the next week that he emailed to ask if I could meet with him earlier than our usual time. “It was amazing,” he told me. “At first I just did some of the things we talked about, and that seemed kind of interesting, but no big deal. But then I found myself whispering the words to myself all through the day, and looking for places where I could do just a little less. On Saturday, I realized that I had slept better the night before than I had in ages. On Sunday night, I was less anxious about going to work the next day than I could remember being forever.”

Robert said that he didn’t think anyone else had noticed that he was doing less. “I’m only doing a little less. I’m still a hard worker, and no one seems to think any differently. It’s just that I’m not working quite so hard. I’m not driving myself like a madman. And I feel different.”

Try It Yourself

Doing a little less doesn’t take a lot of work. It just requires a small attitude shift. It’s possible that no one else will notice that you’ve made any change at all. At least at first.

Try it for a week. You might find yourself a little more relaxed. And you might also find that you’ve accomplished a little more.

*All names and all identifying information changed to protect privacy.

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