How To Unleash The Power Of Doing Less

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986

Many of us feel overloaded with work.  A lot of this work is not out of choice. Most of it comes from an implied threat that if we won’t do it, then bad things – redundancy, outsourcing, downsizing, offshoring – will happen. We then lose sight of things that really matter to us.

Most men live lives of quiet desperation – Thoreau.

But it does not have to be like that. The past is the past. It has gone. We cannot do anything about that.  But we have today to work with. Yes, we have the future but even that is a mirage. We can only live now. Yes, time can change things, but we have to change them ourselves and we can do it only now, only today.

Look at the following table and see the differences between working endless long hours and working normally.

Endless long hours versus normal working hours

To get out from a situation of working endless long hours we have to learn one simple skill: You have to learn to do less.

One important principle to understand is this:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. – Peter Drucker

Look at the following: It shows the four categories of things we do in our life

Four categories of things to do in life

Some of the these things are urgent while others are not. Some of them are important while others are not. This leads us to the matrix which Stephen Covey popularised in his book and is shown below:

Urgent important matrix

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. It’s also easier to do little things we know we can do, than to start on big things we’re not so sure about. – John Cleese

Time management courses cannot solve this problem. They can solve the problem of efficiency but not the problem of whether we are doing the right things. Putting it in another way, they can help us climb the ladder fast but they do not tell us whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

So how do we solve this problem: You have to realise a simple but profoundly important fact-

You will never get everything done.

Once you realise and internalize the truth of this statement, two things happen. You feel liberated. You feel okay that it is okay not to do everything. You also feel liberated as a lot of time frees up and then you have to decide what you are going to do with that time. This means you get a lot of responsibility in life. You have to decide exactly how you are going to invest your precious time from now on. You realise the barrenness of a busy life. You also realise that liberty means responsibility.

You will never get everything done.
You have to choose what you are going to do.
You have to choose what you are never going to do.

What do you choose to do? You have to do the “right” stuff. “Right” stuff means the unique combination of  things that you really love to do, like to do, have to do and hate to do that is right for you. Well, you may make mistakes in that choice, but focusing awareness on the process helps you do less and do the right things.

Contemplate on the following two quotes, which may make things clearer for you:

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. – Lyn Yutang

To comprehend a man’s life, it is necessary to know not merely what he does but also what he purposely leaves undone. There is a limit to the work that can be got out of a human body or a human brain, and he is a wise man who wastes no energy on pursuits for which he is not fitted; and he is still wiser who, from among the things that he can do well, chooses and absolutely follows the best. – John Hall Gladstone

We are now going to see the “funnel analogy” and understand how to make use of it to do less and do the important things:

Funnel analogy of stuffWhat is the right stuff?

Zoom! -what was that? That was your life, mate. That was quick, do I get another? Sorry mate, that’s your lot. – Basil Fawlty

It’s not enough to be bust, so are the ants. the question is, what are we busy about?- Thoreau

“Right stuff”  is very personal. Only you can decide what is “right stuff” for you. But doing things more faster is no substitute for doing the right things. But there are certain things that we can do to make sure we are doing the right stuff:

1. You goals should be clear and not fuzzy. They should have a laser like clarity.  They should be what is called SMART goals- specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. For example, rather than saying: I will exercise more for the next year, you should say: I will walk  for 1 km five days a week for the next year. Then you will know whether you are doing the right stuff or not. If there are many goals, then you prioritize them. For each goal you can have an acceptable level of performance, an extraordinary level of performance and off-the-scale level of performance.

2. You also have to find out what is important in life, what really matters to you. Some ways of finding this are:

  • Imagine you have only 90 days to live. Write down all that you want to do in those 90 days. Take no more than 5 minutes to do that. Choose three things from that list that you feel are most important. Those things are really important.
  • Imagine you have won the lottery and you have enough money to last 4 generations. How would you spend your days? Don’t just say you would laze around. Because, after sometime you will get bored of doing that. The things that you would happily do are what is most important to you.
  • Try to describe your ideal day, week, month and year in as much detail as possible: persons, things, work; what when, how, why, which, etc and you will have a good idea of what you really want to do.
  • Try these books:
  1. The Passion Test: The effortless path to discovering your life’s destiny by Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood
  2. Wake up and change your life by Duncan Bannatyne
  3. What colour is your parachute by Richard N Bolles
  4. Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins

Filter one: To do or not to do

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. – Stephen Covey

Prioritizing viciously

Divide what you have to do into what’s wildly important and what isn’t. You will probably need to agree this with somebody else. In work that person is likely to be your boss. Outside work, it could be the person/people you live with. Prioritize the stuff that is wildly important. Prioritizing means asking this question about your wildly important stuff each time till you finish your list of wildly important things: If I could do only one thing on this list, what would it be? Once you finish doing this, make the other stuff disappear.

  • Consciously stick to only doing the “right stuff”. Give everything that you have when doing the “right stuff”.
  • Continually question what the ‘right stuff” is. If you doubtful whether something is “right stuff” or not, then test it out by not doing it. If the sky falls down, then you obviously it was wildly important. Otherwise, it could just disappear.

Once you have chosen the things to be done tomorrow, then categorise them as follows:

  • A: I have to get this done tomorrow
  • B: It would be nice to get this done tomorrow, but I don’t have to.
  • C: Realistically, I am not going to get this done tomorrow.
  • D: I can delegate it.

Do the A’s and D’s and forget about the rest. If something new crops up, then categorise them as above and do the A’s and D’s again.

How to make other stuff disappear? The only way is to say “no” nicely to it. To get rid of time wasters, delay, decline, do it infrequently. This can be applied to other things as well.

  • Like investing: Don’t sell your stocks. Instead, buy and hold.
  • Like e-mails: Deal with an e-mail only once: Reply, file, forward or delete it.

Filter two: Doing it on your own terms

We will have a lot of things to do in our work and personal life. We have already divided them into wildly important things and the other things. We have made the other things disappear. We have prioritized the wildly important things. Now we want to do it on our own terms. This means that we don’t blindly agree to deadlines set by others. We see whether those deadlines are reasonable or not and we make a reasonable plan, agree it with whoever we need to agree it with and then executing the plan. We do not go overboard with the plan but we make a simple reasonable plan.

How do we do it?

First we decide on the goal:

  • What exactly are we trying to do and how will you know when you are done?
  • Who’s affected by the project and what do they hope to get from it?

Then we decide on the plan:

  • What are the main stages of the project?
  • What are the detailed jobs in each of the big stages?

For each of these jobs:

  • What is it going to cost?
  • Who is going to do it?
  • How long is it going to take?
  • How much work does it involve?

Certain things can derail you when you start out on this goal of doing less. The two main things are guilt and approval seeking.


If you feel that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system. – Wayne Dyer

Once we start doing less, it is possible that we may feel guilty because we seem to be doing less while others are still doing a lot. But you have ask yourself what are doing badly by doing less. You have to differentiate between learning from your mistakes and doing less. Sometimes you do less and you get a less than best result. You learn from it and do things in a better way next time. But there is no need to feel guilty if you are getting all the things done as planned and are still working less. You live according to what makes you happy, i.e your values, rather than someone else’s.

Approval seeking

In the end it is really only my own approval or disapproval that means anything. – Agnetha Faltskog

Even when we take some action that is immensely popular, there will be people who do not approve of it. When people do not approve of things that you do, do these:

  • Explain to them what you are doing and why. Show to them the immense value of getting to live the life you were meant to live- and explain that you could help them achieve that too.
  • Try to picture somebody who you really admire and ask yourself whether that person would have changed their position, watered down a statement, felt unhappy, gone along with the crowd, said “yes” when they should have said “no” or been intimidated when somebody disapproved of what they were doing.

So, once you get rid of guilt and the need for approval from others, the thing that you have to do is make ” doing less” a habit.

Sow a thought, and you reap an act; sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny. – Samuel Smiles

The way to make ” doing less ” a habit is to ask yourself: Do I really have to do this? Why should I invest my precious time in this? 

You can use the following “Do Less” challenges to help you to form this habit:

  • Turn down something at work
  • Don’t sign up for a time management course for the wrong reason
  • Do nothing for two minutes
  • Turn down something in your personal life
  • Let go of the notion that you will get everything done
  • Decline everything that everybody asks you at work for half a day
  • Play the declining game for a whole day
  • Find out what really matters to you
  • Picture how you would like your life to be
  • Figure out what the “right stuff” for you is
  • Ask yourself at the end of the day whether you did the “right stuff”
  • Plan your day to get the right things done
  • Say no to not wildly important things in work and life
  • Practise saying “no” nicely
  • Plan a project
  • Throw away your guilt
  • Live the life you were meant to live without seeking approval
  • Become more creative
  • Vegetate ( a bit anyway)
  • Pick a day to down tools and read what you wanted to read, meditate, write in your diary and to sharpen the saw
  • If you are self-employed, make sure you do not work long hours. Understand that three things are important: (1)Money( don’t run out of it-cashflow). (2)Current customers -give them your all. (3)New customers – find them.
  • Say no, when people delegate stuff to you
  • Get your weekends back and your evenings back and make sure you do not waste your time in not wildly important things
  • Analyse your life and see what you did over the last week: How much of it was “noise”? How much of it was”work that matters”?
  • Cut out the crap-what is not wildly important and throw it away
  • Turn off the box( laptop, tablet, phone,TV)
  • Make a list of things you really want to get done over the next day, week, year.
  • Have a free day a week- completely free.
  • Meditate/clear your head- whatever helps you quiet your mind and get in touch with your subconscious
  • Just do the things that really matter to you.

When you carry out this process, certain things start to happen:

  • You feel free.
  • You get clarity.
  • You get focus.
  • You are less stressed.
  • You get time
  • You become a non-hyperactive productivity machine.
  • You are happier
  • You stop doing more or extra things.

And finally, these words from Steve Jobs may wake you up:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Lets make it everything it was meant to be, when we are alive. By unleashing the power of doing less.

-notes from the book, The Power of Doing Less by Fergus O’ Connell


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