Do Less?

Last week, I learned an important lesson: It’s hard to give an inspirational speech when the more you think about the topic, the less you believe in it.

Today’s excessively long blog post is the rough transcript of the speech I gave to my Toastmasters club last week. In next week’s blog post I’ll tell you why I don’t agree with what I say below:

Are you juggling a job, family, school, exercise, hobbies, church activities, books you want to read, TV you want to watch, friends you want to spend time with, pets, household chores, yardwork, errands to run, and possibly even sleep?

Did just hearing that list exhaust you–or remind you of something you have to do?

Do you need a complicated task management program, a calendar app, or a daily planner just to make sense of it all?

Have you ever considered Doing Less?

Nike has a famous slogan, Just Do It, but none of us can just do everything. Today, we have so many choices about how to spend our time and energy–so many worthy causes and activities. But it can be overwhelming. We end up with schedules packed so full that we never get to rest.

Worse, flitting from one task to another means that nothing ever gets our full attention. There’s a joke: if an athlete is someone who’s good at one sport, what is a triathlete? Someone who’s bad at three sports. Spreading ourselves too thin means we don’t accomplish as much as we could if we focused on one thing. Multitasking is a myth–every time you switch activities you lose your flow. So we don’t accomplish as much as we want to, and we feel even more frazzled.

It sounds bad, but there is a solution. When we do less, when we reduce our activities and projects and commitments, we can focus on the ones that are really important.

Doesn’t that sound so simple and obvious? Like a preschooler could figure it out? Hey, if I want to get really good at coloring in the lines, I can’t spend so much time riding my tricycle?

To be honest, I’m giving this speech as much to convince myself as to convince you. I started thinking about the topic a month ago, but I’ve been reluctant.

This advice is simple, but it can be really hard to put into practice.

I don’t remember the first time I heard this advice, but I remember one early example. Almost fifteen years ago, the fantasy author Pat Wrede told me, when I was talking about finding more time to write, that I don’t have to do everything I want all at once. I can pick up other things later, when I have more time.

Since then I’ve given up or cut way back on a lot of things I used to do, or used to want to do: hiking, bicycling, cooking, volunteering, reading, figure skating.

But I also started new things, including some things I just mentioned, even while I was trying to cut things out.

It’s hard to not be impatient. It’s hard to not let opportunities pass by, because what if they don’t come back? If I want to take a cool class on Coursera, I have to take it now because I don’t know when it will be offered again. If I don’t start playing the piano now, I won’t be any good when I’m forty.

But it’s a trap. When we try to do a million things, we end up doing a million things badly.

This idea of Doing Less is an idea I’ve been seeing a lot lately.  Leo Babauta, who writes the popular blog Zen Habits, wrote a whole book called  The Power of Less. In his books he lays out principles for simplifying our lives.  One of those principles is doing one project at a time, until it’s done, and then starting a new project. He also talks about ways to reduce commitments and projects. Josh Kaufman, the author of The Personal MBA, recently released a book called The First 20 Hours. He emphasizes that when you’re trying to learn a new skill, you should only try to learn one new skill at a time. Along the same lines, in his book on Habits, Charles Duhigg says that when you’re trying to form a new habit, you should only try to form one new habit at a time.

Now, while thinking about this speech and what I was going to say, I ran into another trap, and I started thinking about the Doing Less philosophy  in a whole new way.

All this thinking about what I can cut out of my life, thinking about what I want to focus on and what I want to give up, turned into another project. Lists of goals and values. Questions to ponder. Choosing what to cut and how to cut it.

Even the experts don’t get it right all the time. Leo Babauta’s book amused me when he said that by giving things up, he had more time for exercise and meditation. But as far as I know, exercise and meditation are things that you do. They take time.

Doing Less doesn’t do any good if you replace one activity with another. It needs to be about doing fewer things. That doesn’t mean sitting around staring into space. And it doesn’t mean spending hours trying to decide the most optimized way to use every minute of your time.

What doing less means–to me, and I hope to you as well–is simple. Spend a little bit of time thinking about your dreams and goals. Every day, or week, or month, pick one or two things to work toward. Then, every now and then, think about whether what you’re doing right that minute, or an hour ago, whether it will help you meet your goals. If not, maybe you should be doing something else.

If you’ve been feeling too busy like you’re constantly on the run, try slowing down and doing just a little bit less. Don’t turn it into a huge simplification project because that will just add more to your plate. Just try doing a tiny, little bit less, and see how much more relaxed you feel. Remember the new slogan: Just Do Less.

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