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LESS at Work: Antidotes to Busyness

Finding More Calm, Meaning & Productivity

by Marc Lesser


Having lost sight of our goals we redouble our efforts. — Mark Twain

There is an old story of a man riding very fast on a horse. As he rides past his friend standing on the side of the road, the friend yells, “Where are you going?” The rider turns toward his friend and yells, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave many of us feeling like that person riding that frantically galloping horse. Our daily incessant busyness — too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce and tick off items on our to-do list by each day’s end — seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us. But if we approach our days in a different way, we can consciously change this out-of-control pattern. It only requires the courage to do less. This may sound easy, but doing less can actually be very hard. Too often we mistakenly believe that doing less makes us lazy and results in a lack of productivity. Instead, doing less helps us savor what we do accomplish. We learn to do less of what is extraneous, and engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors, so we craft a productive life that we truly feel good about.

Just doing less for its own sake can be simple, startling, and transformative. Imagine having a real and unhurried conversation in the midst of an unrelenting workday with someone you care about. Imagine completing one discrete task at a time and feeling calm and happy about it. Imagine focusing on and appreciating whatever activity you are doing, without thinking about or worrying about what you will do next.

Every life has great meaning, but the meaning of our own can often be obscured by the fog of constant activity and plain bad habits. Recognize and change these, and we can again savor deeply the ways we contribute to the workplace, enjoy the sweetness of our lives, and share openly and generously with the ones we love. Less busyness leads to appreciating the sacredness of life. Doing less leads to more love, more effectiveness and internal calmness, and a greater ability to accomplish more of what matters most — to us, and by extension to others and the world.

In response to the increasing pace of our lives and our frantic busyness at work, many theories have recently been put forth regarding the best way to increase our satisfaction and productivity at work. Some say to forget about old-fashioned time-management techniques, but instead to manage productivity. Others say that the real secret of avoiding busyness while staying engaged is to manage energy. Still others say that the key to success and satisfaction is to have a clear purpose, clear values, and a clear internal compass to cut through distraction and busyness. In a Zen way, I’m tempted to say: not time management; not productivity management; not energy management; not purpose management. Instead, manage your state of mind. In truth, I believe that all these approaches contain important elements, that all deserve attention. And, in order to reduce habits and patterns that hold us back and increase both our satisfaction and productivity, we must learn to manage our state of mind.

Instead of doing more, here are five activities in which to engage in less. The practice of noticing and of reducing our patterns and habits in these areas is what I call the “Less Manifesto.”

These activities are:

  • Fear – Begin to pay attention to and become friends with your fears. We all have fears. What fears get in your way, accelerate your sense of busyness, and hold you back from finding more meaning and satisfaction? You might consider beginning a regular meditation practice or going on retreat to better know and understand your fears. Experiment with naming your fears and developing new habits.

  • Assumptions – We are brilliant assumption makers, but often our less-than-accurate assumptions, about ourselves and about others can be a hindrance to our happiness and our productivity. To reduce assumptions, find ways to get open and honest feedback from others. Pay attention to the information and feedback you are already receiving. Make small adjustments in your approach.

  • Distractions – Though we enjoy certain kinds of distractions, the “other” kind, those that keep us from being focused and engaged, get in the way of our happiness and productivity. Experiment with staying focused – without checking emails, surfing the web, or answering phone calls. Have a clear vision of what you really want to accomplish. Write it down. Take regular breaks to refresh and recharge.

  • Resistance – Everything changes. When we stop resisting what is and when we reduce grasping at what we have or want, we see that change is neither good nor bad. By accepting change you have more choice and more freedom – in not only what you do, but how you do it. Begin by noticing your resistance, the places where you are swimming against the current and getting in your own way.

  • Busyness - There is a story about two Zen teachers from seventh-century China. One teacher is sweeping some stone steps inside the monastery with a wooden broom. He is approached by the other teacher, who looks at him and remarks, “Too busy.” (This is a way of saying, “Why are you sweeping when you should be meditating or undertaking some type of contemplative practice?”) The first teacher, holding his broom, responds by saying, “You should know that there is one who is not busy.”

Though we often associate busyness with activity and speed, and lack of busyness with stopping or slowing down, this is not always the case. It is possible to be actively engaged and not be busy. Not being “busy” does not require that you stop, slow down, or step out of the activity of your life. Most of the time, we learn, we adjust, we find our composure, right in the midst of the activity and intensity of our lives. We have to!

Begin to notice and play with effort and effortlessness, with exertion and letting go. Ask yourself – What am I doing that is extra? See if you can find “the one who is not busy” right in the midst of the intensity of your life.

Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive coaching and workshop company based in Northern California. His website is www.doingless.net.

Based on the book Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less. Copyright 2009 by Marc Lesser. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.


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