Do Less, Get More

4 tips for improving the quality of life by doing less

The Japanese have an enchanting and beautiful way of arranging flowers, an art form they call Ikebana. One of the key principles of Ikebana says: “it is the space between things that matters.” Placing a flower or an object, considering its colour and effect is only equal in importance to the gap, the space or the emptiness that stands between that object and the others in the arrangement. Ikebana is breathtaking and compelling… and so is a life lived the same way.

Greg McKeown makes the observation that, “We are overvaluing the notion of doing it all, having it all, achieving it all; what Jim Collins calls ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more’.” (“Why We Humblebrag about Being Busy, HBR Blogs, June 6, 2014). He’s right though, there’s a huge social push for being busy, or keeping up the appearance of it. Somewhat counter-culturally I can see at least four great things come from simplifying our lives by designing and orchestrating space between things in our lives:


Better brain

When you’re resting, your brain is not doing nothing. It’s running powerful unconscious programs integrating, assimilating and consolidating memory, learning and pattern recognition. Dreams are a great example of this. In his classic studies of expert performance, K Anders Ericsson, Ph.D (think of the 10,000 hours of practice findings made popular by Malcolm Gladwell) found that the highest performing musicians slept more than their counterparts, learned faster and did less daily practise (The Role of Deliberate Practise in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Psychological Review, Vol 100, pg 363-406). What are you doing to ensure you get adequate rest and sleep? My business partner takes a nap every afternoon.

Better communication

Slowing down our speech, taking dramatic pauses and leaving at least 2 seconds before giving an answer dramatically improves your charisma. According to Charisma researcher Olivia Cabane Ph.D, pausing for a full two seconds after someone else has finished talking and before you speak is central to them recognising that you have heard them. Carmine Gallo reviewed the performances of the best speakers in the world at TED talks ( to find out what makes them so good. She says learning how to slow your delivery, including pausing for dramatic effect, is central to story-telling and audience engagement. Is pausing a skill you need to work on in order to improve your audience engagement and perceived charisma?

Better performance

The breaks you take can give you the edge to win and be more productive. Between fight rounds in Tae Kwan Do a competitor gets a 30 second break. Dr. Ian Snape, performance coach to Tae Kwan Do world champions says that what you do with that down time can make the difference between winning and losing. Mike Tyson said the in between match break (the drink of water, shoulder rub, the pep talk from his coach) could make or break the match. Google has sleep pods, Twitter have meditation rooms and companies worldwide are introducing regular work breaks to improve productivity. How about you? Taking a break every 45 minutes can significantly improve both health and output.

Better leadership

There is some surprising research results coming out this year about the power of doing less in leadership. This pleases the Gen-X slacker in me of course, but the studies are not really talking about being lazy. Professor J. Keith Murningham from Kellogg School of Management teaches that effective leaders free up their time. He says, “As a leader, you should not only do less of the every day work, your goal should be to do nothing!” (The effectiveness of doing nothing as a leader, May 14, 2014). He takes it further, “If your team is successful and see you… doing nothing, they will not think you are lazy, they will want to know your secret.”