Doing Less Means More Productivity, Kindness & Love

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When my two children were in elementary school, a weekly day of doing less was an important part of our family ritual. We borrowed some ideas from the Jewish Sabbath as well as Buddhist Day of Mindfulness practices. At the heart of our day we had three simple rules that we applied from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday evening:

  • Rule #1: There was no spending money.
  • Rule #2: There was no watching television.
  • Rule #3: We did something together as a family.
These three guidelines produced significant results in the quality of those twenty-four hours. What a relief to not buy anything, not have the television on, and spend time simply enjoying each other's presence. My wife and I talked more with our two children; we read books, told stories, played games, went for walks, and shared meals. The biggest benefit of this structured break was that, for a day, the pace of our lives slowed down and our family connections increased. One of my favorite parts of this ritual was the formal ending. We observed the Jewish tradition of looking for the first three stars to become visible on Saturday evening, signaling that Sabbath was over. It was fun and exciting for the four of us to stand on our deck together, seeing who could find the three stars as the sun faded and nighttime slowly emerged. Of course, since we live in Marin County, dense fog sometimes forced us to use our imaginations. Instituting rest and simplicity is not a magic wand for perfection. There were occasional disagreements, grumpiness, and boredom. But our imperfections often emerge as the most endearing parts of ourselves, and those "Sabbath" days stand out as important building blocks, and are great memories, for our still-growing family. I'm a big proponent of doing less, and at times even of doing nothing. Nearly every morning for the past 35 years I've spent about 30 minutes, doing nothing; nothing but being aware of my breath and body, and occasionally just appreciating being here, being alive. I also like to spend whole days, about once a month, in the practice of doing nothing, and once a year spend six or seven days, again, nothing. I often suggest to my coaching clients, busy executives and non-profit leaders, to take the time, right in the midst of their busy, hectic workdays to do nothing - nothing but being aware of the breath; just noticing, I'm alive; I'm here. It seems to result in more calm, more productivity, and more effectiveness during the rest of the day. The art of doing less isn't merely about becoming more productive employees or businesspeople. The true benefit of focusing on and taking a break from busyness is that it brings more kindness and love into our lives. With less busyness and unnecessary effort, more kindness and love can rise to the surface, leading to more effectiveness, energy, and focus. When we feel depleted, love is the best replenisher -- which includes the love we feel for ourselves, the love we freely give to others, and the love that comes to us from the people we care for and admire most. It's worth pointing out that the opposite seems to be true as well. In our increasingly busy and impatient world, people seem to be less kind and patient with each other. Much of that seems to stem from busyness itself and from the increasing attitude that being polite and caring is just another form of wasting time. When we do less and begin to unravel many of the motivations, worries, and strivings that make us run in circles -- and when we stop trying to second-guess everyone else's motivations, worries, and strivings -- what we find at the very core of self and of life, I believe, is kindness and love. Those two glorious things are the most profound levers for accomplishing more. This is not a radical idea. And yet, what a radical idea! What a radical way to live your life! It underpins the best of psychological, spiritual, and contemplative practice. It is the fundamental teaching of all great mystics and is the experience most of us hold deepest in our hearts. We glimpse this basic truth whenever we touch birth or touch death and experience a complete acceptance of the simplicity and sacredness of being human. The more you quiet your mind and let go of striving -- which is all too often someone else's concept of striving imposed on you -- the less you have to "do" and, somehow miraculously, the more that love springs forth from you. I believe that this simple formula is central to being a functioning, happy, and truly contributing human being. Still, doing less takes courage. Stopping, pausing, reflecting, and fully doing one thing can be much more difficult than reflexively reacting and distracting yourself from what is most essential, most heartfelt, and most needed in your life.