Why Less Is Powerful
We live in a world where, more often than not, more is better. We are after more money, to buy bigger houses and cars, and more clothes and gadgets and furniture. We need bigger shopping malls rather than the small shops of yesterday. We consume more, and we produce more, and we do more than ever before.
The problem with constantly trying to increase volume is that it doesn’t always produce the best results. Doing a huge number of things doesn’t mean you’re getting anything meaningful done. In fact, it’s so hit-and-miss that it’s almost like playing a game of roulette: If you do enough tasks, one of them is bound to pay off big.
It doesn’t work that way. Doing more things means you’re likely to do a lot of unimportant things, and you’ll be overworked and stressed at the same time.
Imagine two reporters working at a newspaper: One goes for a high volume of articles each week, and the other decides to do only one. The reporter writing thirty articles a week scans a vast amount of sources for any little bit of information that’s remotely interesting, turning each into a short, quick, and fairly limited article that doesn’t get much attention. His editor is pleased by the amount of work he’s doing, and he gets rewarded with praise.
The second reporter decides that if he’s just going to do one article this week, he’d better make it count. He spends half of the first day researching and brainstorming and thinking until he chooses a high-impact story that he knows will knock people’s socks off. It’ll be an article that wins awards. He spends two days researching it and another couple days writing it and checking facts.
Guess what happens? Not only does he produce the best article of the week, but it becomes an award-winning article, one that the readers love and that gets him a promotion and long-term and widespread recognition. From that article, and others like it, he can build a career. The first reporter was thinking high-volume, but short-term. The second reporter focused on less, but it did much more over the long-term.
That’s the Power of Less.
The Art of Setting Limits
MOST OF US lead lives filled with too much stuff, too much information, too many papers, too much to do, too much clutter. Unfortunately, our time and space is limited, and having too much of everything is like trying to cram a library into a single box: It can’t be done, it’s hard to enjoy the books, and sooner or later the box will break.
Our problem is living without limits. It’s like going shopping without spending limits—you tend to go overboard and end up with a bunch of stuff you don’t need or really want much. But if you have a budget (say one hundred dollars), you’ll choose only the things that matter, and you’ll end up with much less junk.
Our entire lives are like this: We live without limits. And while that freedom can seem fun at first, after a while it gets to be too much. We don’t have enough room for everything. We can’t handle the stress of trying to do everything. We just can’t fit it in our lives, no matter how much we’d like to do so.
What areas of your life need limits? Everything that you feel is in any way overloaded. Every area that you’d like to improve. Take a few minutes to think about your life—what areas take up too much time, or seem overloaded? What would you like to simplify? Some ideas for good places to start: E-mail, daily tasks, the amount of time spent on the phone, the number of projects you have on your plate, the number of blogs or other projects you subscribe to, the amount of time you spend reading on the internet, the number of things on top of your desk. These are just ideas, of course. You’ll slowly be expanding into other areas. Focus on one change at a time until it becomes a part of your routine, and you’re comfortable with the limit.
When you first set a limit on something, it’ll be a fairly arbitrary number, as it will take some time to see what works for you. However, setting limits isn’t just pulling a random number out of a hat—it’s based on your experience with that type of activity, and based on what you think your ideal is.
For example, when you first set a limit on the number of times you plan to check your e-mail, if you just randomly select a number, it could be well over a thousand. But you know from experience that that would obviously be too high a limit, so you’ll likely choose from a range that’s reasonable based on your years of experience in checking e-mail. Let’s say you normally check e-mail ten to fifteen times a day, and that seems like too much for you. You’re spending most of your day in e-mail, instead of getting your other work done. So you might choose from a range of one to five times, as that seems ideal. Maybe you’ll try twice a day—once in the morning and once before you leave work.
The next step is to test it out, to see if that limit works for you. Is it a limit you can reasonably stick to? Is it hurting your communication with others in an appreciable way? Are you able to get much more work done with this limit?
Think of your first week with that limit as an experiment. If it doesn’t work for you (and there’s no single limit that works for everyone), then adjust it a bit. If twice a day isn’t often enough, try three times a day. If you think you can get by with even less, try once a day. Then test that new limit out until you find what works for you, and until you make that limit a part of your daily routine. Once it’s a habit, you can move on to the next area of your life. So setting limits for anything else will work the same way:
Choosing the Essential, and Simplifying
How do you know what’s essential? That’s the key question. Once you know that, the rest is easy. It’s like the old joke: how do you carve a statue of an elephant? Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Well, first you have to know what the elephant looks like.
Many productivity systems will tell you to do things in reverse: They’ll tell you how to do things quickly, without trying to figure out what things you should be doing. They’ll tell you how to get the urgent tasks done, and how to handle a mass of assignments and information coming at you, but these systems don’t do a good job of discriminating between what’s important and what’s not, and you end up doing everything that’s thrown at you. That puts you at the mercy of the flow of tasks and information coming at you—in other words, at the mercy of anyone’s whim or requests.
Instead, you must ask yourself in everything you do, what is essential? Whether that’s asking yourself what you want to do today, or this week, or this year, or in your life in general, ask yourself what is essential. Whether that be deciding which e-mails to reply to, what you can buy this month with your limited budget, how to declutter your desk or your house—ask yourself what the essentials are.
In everything you do, use these questions to guide you to choose the essential, especially if you have problems deciding. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t need these questions anymore—they’ll become automatic. 1. What are your values? 2. What are your goals? 3. What do you love? 4. What is important to you? 5. What has the biggest impact?
We live in a multitasking world. You’re working on two projects at once when your boss places two new demands on your desk. You’re on the phone when three new e-mails come in. You’re trying to get out the door on time so you can pick up a few groceries for dinner on the way home.
In these days of instant technology, we are bombarded with an overload of information and demands of our time. But we’re not designed to handle this kind of overload: Soon we are so overwhelmed with things to do that our system begins to fall apart.
Instead, the author advocates single-tasking, focusing on one task at a time and working as simply as possible to preserve your mental health and to improve your effectiveness. Here are a few quick reasons not to multitask: Multitasking is less efficient, due to the need to switch gears for each new task and then switch back again. Multitasking is more complicated, and thus leaves you more prone to stress and errors. Multitasking can be crazy-making, and in this already chaotic world, we need to rein in the terror and find a little oasis of sanity and calm.
Here’s how to single-task instead: First thing in the morning, work on your Most Important Task. Don’t do anything else until this is done. Give yourself a short break, then start on your next Most Important Task. If you can get two to three of these done in the morning, the rest of the day is gravy.
When you are working on a task in a time block, turn off all other distractions. Shut off e-mail and the entire Internet if possible. Shut off your cell phone. Try not to answer your phone, if possible. Focus on that one task, and try to get it done without worrying about other stuff.
If you feel the urge to check your e-mail or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply. Refocus yourself. Get back to the task at hand. If other things come in while you’re working, put them in your in-box, or take note of them in a small notebook or on a text file on your computer. Get back to the task at hand.
Every now and then, when you’ve completed the task at hand, process your notes and in-box, adding the tasks to your to-do lists and refiguring your schedule if necessary. Process your e-mail and other in-boxes at regular and predetermined intervals.
There are times when an interruption is so urgent that you cannot put it off until you’re done with the task at hand. In that case, try to make a note of where you are (writing down notes if you have time) with the task at hand, and put all the documents or notes for that task together and aside (perhaps in an “action” folder or project folder). Then, when you come back to that task, you can pull out your folder and look at your notes to see where you left off.
Take deep breaths, stretch, and take breaks now and then. Enjoy life. Go outside, and appreciate nature. Keep yourself sane.