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Accomplishing More by Doing Less
By Marc Lesser
New World LibraryCopyright © 2009 Marc Lesser
All rights reserved.
THE IMMENSE SEA
If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT THE BENEFITS OF DOING LESS in a world that has increasingly embraced a crazy kind of more — more activity, more things, and even, strangely, more exhaustion. More running in circles to fulfill someone else's requirements. This book presents a different, calmer, and surprisingly productive way of approaching our work and life. But there are reasons we often drown in, or hide behind, long, jam-packed days. Why, in fact, are we so busy?
BUSY CAN FEEL GREAT
Of course, sometimes being busy can feel great. When we are busy earning a living, effectively leading others, achieving academically or artistically, and doing all the things that win us the admiration of partners, parents, and friends, we feel productive, satisfied, and emotionally and intellectually engaged in the business of life. This kind of busy energizes us; the other kind of busy leaves us bored, overwhelmed, and filled with a sense of failure. This book is about that kind of busy — that crazy, nonstop, way-too-busy ceaseless activity that exhausts our efforts and yet leaves us feeling as if we are getting nowhere. This is what I call busyness.
Frequent signs of busyness are debilitating stress, pretending and posturing to mask self-doubt, yelling or loss of emotional control, and avoidance of difficulties. This last point is particularly significant. Many of us inhabit a busyness-as-religion world where it is all too easy to fill our days with overwork or sensory overstimulation so that we don't have to face the difficulties or hard truths of our lives. If we are unhappy, busyness makes a convenient excuse so that we don't have to acknowledge what's not working in our jobs or our families. Sometimes stating how busy we are becomes code for "I must be (please, I hope I am) measuring up to expectations, because, after all, I'm constantly doing, giving, striving, achieving, and working just as hard as I possibly can!"
If we are unhappy, busyness makes a convenient excuse so that we don't have to acknowledge what's not working in our jobs or our famililes.
Then again, it's true that there is so much to do. People must eat. Humans get sick and require care. We have jobs to accomplish, businesses to run, things to fix. In any one day, there are all sorts of tasks — from the mundane to the certifiably daunting — that we would like to complete. Plus, beyond our personal welfare, many of us worry about the financial, environmental, and resource challenges facing our communities, our nation, and our planet; these issues are enormous and, arguably, unprecedented. Our sense that there is too much to do is real and deserves acknowledgment and at times quite a bit of respect. Still, even in the face of daunting and overwhelming challenges, I have come to believe in the power of less.
DISCOVERING THE POWER OF LESS
When I was twenty-one years old, I took a one-year leave of absence from Rutgers University. This was one of my first experiences of choosing to do less — I realized that I needed to stop, to step outside the prescribed path of going directly from high school to college to developing a professional career. I needed to get another perspective about my choices and my life. This one-year leave turned into nearly ten years as a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center.
One of my work assignments during that time was to be in charge of the draft horse farming project at Green Gulch Farm (part of the San Francisco Zen Center) in Muir Beach, California, about five miles outside of Mill Valley. One of my teachers was Harry Roberts, a Yurok Indian–trained shaman, naturalist, cowboy, and Irish curmudgeon, and one day he asked me, "Do you want to know the three most important tasks of a human being?" I didn't hesitate to answer yes. "There are three tasks that matter in this lifetime," Harry said.
"The first task, though not the most important task, is to quiet the busyness in your mind. The second is to find your song. And the third task is to sing your song."
Harry's three essential tasks are what I now consider the essential underpinnings for transforming busyness into composure and results.
Quiet the Busyness in Your Mind
Harry Roberts spoke simply and directly about the practice of mindfulness long before that word came into more popular use. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our inner life and the world around us. It begins by noticing how busy our minds are, how easily and habitually our minds jump from thought to thought, often residing in the past or in the future — anywhere but right here, right now. Quieting the mind generally begins with taking the time to be still, to be quiet, and paying attention to the breath and body. It does not mean we stop thinking, but we reduce the noise and increase our focus and concentration.
This process is like applying WD-40 to our minds. Increasing our awareness and paying conscious attention to our inner and outer life loosens the somewhat hardened or rusted parts of our thinking. Often, without even noticing, we get a bit stuck in mental habits and assumptions that underlie and drive our thinking. Applying some attention can loosen these patterns. This can mean increasing our ability to either narrow or expand our focus — whichever is most effective and refreshing to our habitual ways of thinking. Quieting the busyness in our mind can open the door to experiencing the sacredness of life in general and our own wondrous life even in the midst of everyday activities. It is something we can practice at any time, in any moment when we want to let go of the activity-driven busyness that can make us feel so depleted.
Find Your Song
Finding your song describes your ability to access your deep power — which is your appreciation for being alive. This embraces both who you are and all that you have right now as well as the greater possibilities you imagine and envision for the future. We can hear our song only when our minds are quiet, when we can reflect on what is truly engaging and important to us — what brings us the greatest sense of belonging and of accomplishment. Finding our song means discovering our fierce and tender heart, where we feel deeply connected to all that surrounds us. Though our jobs and professional careers are important, our song is much deeper and wider than our work. Our song includes our way of being in the world, our personal relationships, our daily routines, and how we create a sense of community.
Sing Your Song
Results matter. Accomplishment is important. Your observable, concrete actions do have weight. At the same time, I believe part of Harry Roberts's message is that your song is always available. You can choose to sing your song — that is, have a positive effect on the task at hand and feel personally productive — anytime and anyplace, in small or large ways. Where you live and work and with whom you work matter tremendously. How you express your deepest longings and intentions is vitally important to enlisting others in your vision and in taking steps toward implementing that vision. Singing your song is simply a rather poetic way of reminding you that no matter what your circumstances are, you can engage them effectively and with as much personal satisfaction as possible.
Part of my song — which I have come to realize almost thirty years after Harry Roberts first posed that question to me — is to help others find and sing theirs by teaching the art of doing less. To me that means helping people
reduce what is extra and unnecessary in daily life to increase the positive power that resides inside every human being;
work and live with greater focus, energy, and composure; and
align business, leadership, and contemplative practices with what is most meaningful and healing.
My hope is that the more we learn to quiet the busyness in our mind, discover our own song, and transform ourselves by expressing it, we will accomplish more of what really matters — to ourselves and to the welfare of the world.
ADDICTED TO BUSYNESS
We all get overwhelmed with busyness at times. But if you find yourself frequently comfortable with or bragging about how over-busy you are, you may want to question whether you've become addicted to being busy. Have you convinced yourself that you thrive on busyness? Do you often feel a physical satisfaction and increase in energy from "multitasking" — from the thrill of jam-packing a day with more than seems humanly possible, or from the drama of working under impossible deadlines and meeting them at any cost to health and family? At the end of a workday, do you stay buzzed, and/or does the stress of the workday remain in your bones? When you are not working, do you have difficulty focusing and calming down? Do you feel a sense of emptiness?
If the answer is yes to most of these questions, you might want to consider developing a more sustainable approach to work and activity in general. Your current and future health probably depends on it.
It is particularly ironic that people specifically working toward sustainability — those in health care and medicine, those working for environmental reform and social change, and many in the nonprofit sector — often get caught up in a culture of busyness that overwhelms their work and personal lives and is anything but sustainable. In this poignant situation, people essentially trade their personal welfare for the common good. However, while I completely respect the scope and immediacy of the needs being addressed — the problems and suffering in our communities and our world are enormous and need urgent attention — I've found that pursuing solutions in a frenetic, nearly desperate way often leads to undesired or counterproductive results.
Almost without our realizing it, busyness has become a badge of honor. In the short term, the self-satisfaction it brings can feel really good. But busyness is not a sustainable way of life. Even when we throw ourselves into busyness with the best of intentions, it can become a way of avoiding deeper issues of purpose and meaning in our life, and it can harm the depth and authenticity of our connections with others.
OUR NOISIER, BUSIER WORLD
Not that many years ago, when you left work, you left your work. Now, wherever you go, your work can go with you: via cell phones, email, text-messaging, and the Web. With the ability to communicate whenever and however we like, we do, but the information flow can feel like an overwhelming geyser and the distinction between work and home is increasingly blurred. We can work not only while driving but when we are with our family, walking down the street, or eating at a restaurant. Sometimes this seems like a necessity: emails flow at such a whitewater pace that we become afraid of what will await us in the morning if we don't answer messages immediately (and again later that night). At home it is very easy and tempting to check email and voice mail and stay connected with work 24/7, which then comes to be what our workplace expects of us — that we will be available day and night. But all this vigilance and constant communication means we often try to do everything all the time at the expense of doing just one thing at a time. We sacrifice having time to think and reflect, we sacrifice being fully engaged with the people we are with (whether coworkers, friends, or family), and we jeopardize our own sense of ease and replenishment.
Of course the computer, the Internet, and cell phones are unmistakable boons to business. Technology in the digital age has streamlined so much of the way we conduct transactions and has improved the speed and often the quality of our work communications. It's just that we can become almost unwittingly addicted to the constant input until we forget we have the power to turn the technology off. This constant "connection" can make us confuse busyness with effectiveness, data with understanding, and talking or typing with real communication and emotional connection with those we are "connecting" with. This endless typing, texting, and technological multitasking allows little time for the quietude that can bring some satisfaction and composure back into our lives.
Often just twenty minutes, or even twenty seconds, of "time out" — time, literally, off — where we return to our breath and body, can do wonders for our brains, nervous systems, hands, arms, and backs. Even better, twenty minutes of meditation or contemplative practice, which will be discussed at greater length in chapter 4, is an always-available gift to ourselves. It is a great way to calm our mental circuits when they get scrambled and are about to blow.
DO LESS, NOT DO NOTHING
During the years that I was working on the manuscript of this book, I would mention its working title Do Less, Accomplish More to people. The two words "do less" really grabbed people's attention, as if I were throwing a life raft to those being pulled by a strong current down a river they didn't want to be traveling. The hunger for doing less is palpable. I see so many people who feel overwhelmed and frustrated with their work and personal lives. The list of what stresses us is almost endless. There are too many choices and too many worries and too little sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
When I mentioned the working title, the enticing, almost fairy-tale image that would arise for some people was having the ability to sit on the sofa, feet up, doing nothing — while presumably the house magically and effortlessly cleaned itself. In the work-related fantasy, people imagined sitting at their desk, relaxing, perhaps surfing the Internet, and sipping a great cup of coffee — while emails stopped arriving, phones stopped ringing, tasks were completed, and yet somehow careers and income kept blossoming.
I hope that doing less will enable you to determine, each day, what your true productivity and contribution can be. Only you can be.
Unfortunately, sitting on the couch or sitting at your desk is just that: sitting. This is not the same as "sitting meditation," which we will discuss later. Sitting and doing nothing is certainly one way to "do less," but it accomplishes less, too — and it is laziness or wishful thinking to hope otherwise. By advocating that we do less, I am not endorsing doing nothing or saying we must sacrifice productivity in our life. In fact, I am endorsing that endless immensity of the sea that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry beautifully alludes to in this chapter's opening quotation. Too often we spend our time busily hammering away and yet lose track of what we are building and why — and end up wasting our best efforts.
I hope that doing less will enable you to determine, each day, what your true productivity and contribution can be. Only you can define precisely what that immense sea is for you. Only you can know that which you truly long for, and only you can know the hard realities of what your life, both personal and professional, requires. My hope is that this book will help you see those things more clearly, as well as provide you with specific tools and strategies to accomplish those goals.CHAPTER 2
THE ART OF LESS
The self is not a fixed entity, but a dynamic process of relationships.... People are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.
— David Brooks, New York Times, May 13, 2008
WHAT DO I MEAN WHEN I SAY YOU CAN DO LESS and yet accomplish more? Less and more of what? In fact, the particular activities in both cases must be determined by the individual, and often they are dictated by and change with circumstances. Doing less is more of an art than a science. The Less Manifesto I present in this book describes a more effective way of approaching life and work, and with this, we can do less and accomplish more — with a great deal more satisfaction — in nearly any situation.
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, when we feel less fear, when we become less distracted, 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. But to achieve these external real-world benefits, we first have to turn inward and "do less" within ourselves.
Excerpted from Less by Marc Lesser. Copyright © 2009 Marc Lesser. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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