Less but Better

Most of us have this fallacy that we think we can “do it all”, that we can check off all the boxes, get all the things done, be at all the places, and make everyone happy all of the time. We think we can say “yes” to everything and do all of those things perfectly, and when we fall short of our unrealistic expectations, we get disappointed, stressed, and burned out. It never works out quite like that in reality. Yet, we continue to believe it day-in and day-out. As obvious as it sounds, we double-book ourselves thinking that we can be at many places at the same time. We don’t say “no”, thinking that we’ll hurt the other person rather than objectively understanding the difference between refusing a request and denying a person.

The truth of the matter is we can do anything, but not everything. We fail to take into account the opportunity cost involved that comes with making choices. We forget that “lack of time” is never a resource issue, and almost always a priority issue.

The thing is that there are far more opportunities in the world than we have the time and attention to invest in. We can’t “do it all”. We only have so much effort at our disposal. We can use that limited attention doing a few things really well or use it to do many things poorly. Although subconsciously we know that this is true, we haven’t quite come to terms with it and haven’t accepted it. It’s not about getting more done. It’s about getting only the right things done.

When we say “yes” to one thing, we are subconsciously saying “no” to many things. In a way, that is good because that one “yes” helps us focus on that one thing, which removes the thinking and the decision-making required to make that choice ever again in your life. It also stops you from repeatedly having to think about making those choices again.

That means using that limited time and attention toward making your greatest contribution to do the few things that really matter to you.

I have a personal life philosophy that runs through everything I do. It comes from a design approach made popular by German industrial designer Dieter Rams: Weniger aber besser, which translates to “Less but Better”.

Here’s the thing: almost everything is noise. Only a few things really matter, and we know that we can’t “do it all”. We can either do a few things well or many things poorly because the amount of effort required to do both of those approaches is the same and limited. For instance, from a work stand-point, we can’t do everything. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. When everything is important, nothing is important. We can do anything, but not everything at the same time. Therefore, we must make choices. In order to make choices, we need some kind of selective criteria to evaluate the choices first. And with making choices comes tradeoffs. So, we must pick a few things that we want to make our greatest contribution from a personal legacy standpoint. Then, spend all our energy and focus in trying to be good at that thing.

Here is the process for applying this philosophy to your work. Use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute approach to figure out the few things that you can make your greatest contribution in. Then, spend most of your work time doing just that.

Figure out the few things that you can excel at and contribute to rather than doing many things poorly; drop everything else; consider your personal legacy. Read Getting Work Done to learn about how I use work modes to do work that matters to me.

Have routines in place to make doing these essential things automatic so you don’t have to keep thinking about what or when to do them. Do fewer things; focus on doing and completing fewer things rather than starting many things at the same time.

It’s important to remember that you always have a choice. Choose to be proactive rather than reactive. The more proactive you are, the less reactive you’ll be to others’ demands and requests. Always prioritize yourself over others. You can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself first. That requires saying “no” to a lot of requests so you can say “yes” to a few things that really matter, but more on that in a future post.

Once you figure out what those few (but better) things are for you, then it’s a matter of doing them as effortlessly as possible:

  • Set up routines for doing the essential things as automatically as possible.
  • Pick tools that work for you. I suggest reading Tools Don’t Matter and Tools for Knowledge Workers.
  • Don’t just work harder; work smarter. Set boundaries. Your personal time is just as important as your work time, if not more so.
  • Apply extreme criteria for doing things and for responding to others’ requests on your time and attention. If it’s not a definitive “yes”, it should be a definite “no”.

The approach of “less, but better” is just as applicable in everyday life as it is with design and doing knowledge work. Here are some ways you can practice this philosophy:

  • Remember that how you do something is more important than what you do. Treat yourself to fewer trips/vacations, but enjoy the best you can afford.

  • Have fewer deep (personal/professional) relationships rather than having many “shallow” connections. In any case, you can’t sustain more than a handful of relationships well. If everyone is your friend, then who is your real friend?

  • Use fewer software applications. Just because there are a gazillion apps out there doesn’t mean that you can or should use them all. You can’t. Pick the ones you need, then use the heck out of them. Most of the apps I use to this day have been the ones I’ve been using for a few years now, and they work great for me. For more on picking the right tools, I suggest reading Tools for Knowledge Workers.

  • Own fewer things. But, whatever you own, use the heck out of them. Also, life is too short for consuming poor quality things. Don’t buy cheap things, but invest in quality; cheap things will turn out to be more expensive in the long term. When you buy the best you can afford, it pays for itself many times over when you keep it well.

  • Eat less food, but make it good food. Good food doesn’t always have to be expensive. For instance, the only criteria for you could be that the food be healthy and tasty. Also, avoid thinking about money when it comes to food. That is a poverty mentality. Plus, you deserve to have better health.

  • Consume less (but good) music, films, books, etc. (more below).

  • When it comes to music, listen to fewer tracks in each genre by your favorite artist; keep only the highest-rated tracks in your music library.

  • Watch fewer films; only the best films because life is too short to watch bad films; and by “best”, I mean films that come recommended by cinephiles and critics alike. Films that are actually worth watching rather than wasting your valuable time and attention on something that is not.

  • Read fewer books; mostly the ones that come highly recommended by sources you trust.

Once you figure out the few things/areas that you want to make your highest contribution in, then it’s just a matter of using your time and attention effectively to do those few things better. Remember, this philosophy can be applied to virtually anything.

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