Chris Thomson's three-part series on Intelligent Simplicity
Herein is #2 of 3: Less Is Better
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Note to the reader: This is the second in a three-part series on intelligent simplicity. In this part, I share insights and stories, and offer To Do lists about Less Is Better!
Part Two: Less Is Better
We sometimes hear the phrase “less is more”, and we probably know what it means. However, less is not more. More is more! However, less is often better, as I hope to show in this article.
Less is not always better. There are many occasions when more is better. For example, there are times when we really do need to do more, or say more. If something is truly urgent, we need to go faster. And it should be obvious that people who do not even have the basics of live, such as adequate food and shelter, need to have more.
I could keep giving you examples of situations where more is better, and I am sure you can think of some. However, my general sense is that too many of us have too much, do too much, say too much and rush too much.
We need to find a healthy balance, by avoiding the two extremes - too much and too little. The fact that I advocate “less is better” in this article does not mean that less is always better is always. It often is, but not always.
To give you a sense of what is coming, here are some phrases that, for me, summarise the benefits of “less is better”. They went down well at a course I ran in Barcelona.
- You do less, but you live better
- You say less, but you communicate better
- You have less, but you enjoy more
- You rush less, but make better progress
- You make less effort, but get better results
- You control less, and allow things to happen more naturally
Let now explore each of themes in some detail.
Do Less, Live Better
It is quite common these days to see someone walking with ski-poles, listening to an iPod, with a dog on the end of a lead. It is equally common to come across someone drinking coffee, with her laptop open, speaking on her mobile phone, while having a conversation with someone across from her.
Here in Catalonia, where I live, I come across more and more drivers suddenly slowing down for no apparent reason. When I overtake them, I find that they are steering with one hand and texting with the other! Some people call this “multi-tasking”, as if it were a good thing. I prefer to think of it as “doing too much”.
It was not always like this. There was a time when children had a childhood. Today, large numbers of them have what can only be described as an intensive preparation to do well in the world of work.
Children are ferried short distances to school, often in oversized vehicles, when they could easily have walked or taken a bus. Then they are collected after school and whisked away to what could be the first of several extra-curricular activities, which are designed to increase the child’s chances of getting a “good job”, which is code for one with a lot of money attached to it. Their childhood has been taken from them, and this often shows later in life as dysfunctional or anti-social behaviour.
When I was a child, in the 1950s, we were told that life would be much easier in the future. We would have more free time. We would work fewer hours. And life would be less stressful. The opposite has happened.
I look around me and see signs of stress everywhere, and I see people working longer and harder than ever. There are many reasons why we do too much. Here are some of them:
Social pressures – we feel that we should be doing all kinds of things for our children. And we feel that, in order to “get on in life”, we need to work long and hard.
Work pressures – your colleagues do it, therefore so should you. And “doing” gives the impression that you are working, even if you are not contributing anything of value. It surely has to be significant that sitting quietly, thinking clearly, is not regarded as real work, even though it may often be the most useful thing you do.
Virtue signalling – being busy is regarded as a virtue. Listen to the pride in the of voice of someone who says “I’m really busy these days” or “I work 12 hours a day”. I have to assume that they live to work, rather than working to live.
Making the most of our time – life is short, so we have to make the most of it. And that means doing as much as possible. Of course, there many things we could do, such as climbing K2, but we would end up drained and exhausted, burned out before our time. Indeed, burnout has become common. Many young people have had to retire in their thirties, because they do not have the energy to continue.
Anxiety – being busy is a common way of trying to keep anxiety and unhappiness at bay. It may help for a while, but it certainly does not work in the long term.
It may seem like a paradox that by doing less, you can live better and even achieve more. One good way of doing this is to stop rushing around!
Rush Less, Make Better Progress
Many things are much faster than they used to be. Travelling at 60mph in a car seems quite slow these days, when it seemed fast only fifty years ago. In my childhood, a car capable of more then 80 mph was rare indeed. Today, most cars cruise faster than this on motorways.
When I was in Shanghai, people told me to take the Maglev train to the airport. I did not, because I could not see the point of travelling at 300 mph, just to arrive 10 minutes sooner.
Rush has invaded all aspects of our lives. Even when we are sitting still at a desk, we cannot avoid the rush of the Internet. Google searches, for example, take fractions of a second. Yet in an interview Eric Schmidt, their former CEO, complained about the slow pace of searches. He claimed that we want our search results even faster. Faster than a fraction of a second? Am I missing something?
Life is undoubtedly faster, but is it better because of this? You will not be surprised to hear that I have my doubts, not about speed, but about rush. We need to make the distinction. Speed is not the same as rush. Speed is neutral. Rush is a state of mind, charged with anxiety.
Stress – driving fast can be exhilarating, but it can be stressful too. It can cause accidents, use more fuel and, as the research keeps telling us, does not get us to our destination that much sooner.
Health – eating quickly is bad for us, both physically and culturally. Yet fast food, rushed meals, “grazing”, “eating on the hoof”, drinking coffee while driving, have all become commonplace. You have probably come across one response to this – the “slow food” movement.
Premature action – who among us has not felt the acute discomfort of sending an email or text in haste, or to the wrong person?
Bad decisions – decision-making, except in real emergencies, is best done slowly. Typically, we make bad decisions when we rush.
There are many benefits from not rushing, for example:
Enjoyment - the slower you go, the more you see. And the more you see, the more you enjoy. Just imagine travelling through the countryside on a motorway. And then imagine walking or cycling through it.
Calm – we feel much calmer and more relaxed when we stop rushing.
Communication – when we speak slowly and clearly, people are much more likely to understand us and pay attention to us. I will say more about this in a moment.
Mistakes – you will probably make fewer mistakes if you do things more slowly.
My one suggestion is that you learn to “throttle back”, take your foot off the accelerator of your life. Walk more slowly, eat more slowly, and talk more slowly. This takes us to our next theme.
Say Less, Communicate Better
Just to remind you, the aim is to find a balance between too much and too little. There are clearly some situations where saying more is the right thing to do, as for example when you have a lot of things bottled up inside you that need to be expressed, or when you really need to explain something fully. The key is to know when you need to say more, and when you need to say less.
We have never had so many opportunities to say things. You probably have a mobile phone, a laptop or tablet, and one or more email accounts. You may be in habit of using Skype. Perhaps you also have a website or a blog, not to mention your presence on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
You can communicate all day, to virtually anyone, anywhere. Perhaps you already do! As if this were not enough, you have access to hundreds of TV channels and to many newspapers. We are undoubtedly saying more. But are we communicating better? I doubt it very much. For example:
Meetings – many meetings are unnecessary, and many are too long. Some people speak too much, others speak too little, while some speak only because they feel they have to. We would all benefit from fewer, shorter meetings.
Reports – they are often too long and badly written. Many take 20 pages to say what could be better said in two. Some reports are simply unnecessary.
Emails – they are often too long, and badly written. It could be because people do not really know what they want to say. It could be because they are in too much of a rush. Or perhaps it is just because they no longer care about the quality of their writing.
What we say and how we say it can determine the success or failure of the important things in our life – our relationships, our wellbeing, our work, and our finances. It is not the quantity of our communication that matters, but the quality. So why do we say so much? As always, there are several reasons.
Uncomfortable with silence – in a busy, noisy world, silence has become a rare luxury for many of us. Yet peace and quiet are surely necessary for good health and for a good quality of life. The problem is that so many of us are so accustomed to constant noise that silence makes us feel uncomfortable. So, we feel compelled to “fill the space” with sound, by speaking a lot or playing loud music.
Society values quantity – so we write long reports and give long presentations, when shorter would usually be better. As you know, consultants are often paid for the time spent on a project, rather than for the quality of the result. No guesses for what happens!
Anxiety – a common response to anxiety is to talk a lot. As you can see, anxiety is a recurring theme.
Pressures to speak – perhaps we feel we have to speak at a meeting, just to demonstrate that we are adding value, and earning our salary. Besides, there seems to be an unwritten rule that it is impolite to keep silent in the company of others. But why should we not able to enjoy silence together?
Many of us are nervous about speaking in public, particularly in front of a large audience, and very few people write well. We would all benefit from becoming better speakers and writers. People would pay more attention to what we have to say. We would be able to get what we want, quicker and more efficiently. And, not least, we would feel better, as our confidence rises. My suggestions are:
- Get into the habit of reading aloud from a book for just a few minutes each day, slowly and clearly
- Buy a good pen, and practise your handwriting. Try to write elegantly. It may seem strange to hear this, but doing this can produce elegance inside you
- Never interrupt when someone is speaking
- Pause from time to time when you are speaking
- Go to quiet, peaceful places whenever you can
Have Less, Enjoy More
If everyone consumed as much as the typical American, we would need four planets to provide the space and resources to make this possible, perhaps even more than four when we factor in obesity! We clearly do not have four planets, so why do we allow the human population to continue to grow so rapidly, and why do so many people continue to advocate perpetual economic growth, which means producing and consuming more and more?
The answer to these questions runs very deep, not least because the belief that we need perpetual economic growth has become almost religious, a self-evident truth, about which there can be no argument.
We looked at this in the first article. People, like me, who argue against it, are regarded as heretics. While it is true that there are still far too many people who do not even have the basic necessities of life, billions of people now have far more than they need, yet they want even more.
“Affluenza” has become one of the epidemics of the modern world. It has afflicted China and other countries in a big way. It will end in tears, because it is unsustainable.
For some people, more is never enough. It is interesting to reflect that one of the fastest growing industries, in the USA and elsewhere, is the self-storage industry. Although some people use self-storage units to keep things while they look for a new home, many use the facilities to store things because they have no more room at home. They have too much stuff. But this does not deter them. They continue to accumulate things, some of which they never use, and some they will never see again. It seems that they need to keep acquiring to be able to feel alive.
Having too much is not good for you, because it does not make you happy. It is not good for your pocket, and it is obviously not good for the planet. So why do we want so much and why do we keep on acquiring more when we already have too much? There are many reasons.
Availability – we do it because stuff is so available, in shops, on the internet, and in a variety of other ways, such as car-boot sales. We buy stuff that we do not need, and we buy it even when we cannot afford it, running up a lot of debt.
Cult of the new – I have lost count of the number of times a new iPhone has been launched, each time with a fanfare of publicity, and each time more expensive. If the previous model was so good, as is claimed each time by Apple, why replace it so soon? The fact is that people feel compelled to have the latest technology or the latest product, regardless of how well their current technology or product functions. Presumably, this is to satisfy their desire for novelty and instant gratification.
Anxiety – retail therapy, as it is often called, has become a huge phenomenon. People feel not the slightest tinge of embarrassment as they “shop until they drop”. It is common to women who already have too many clothes walking along city street with bags full of even more clothes! I assume that much of this is caused by anxiety or insecurity. While the act of shopping makes people feel better for a short while, that feeling quickly wears off, and the anxiety returns.
Confusing needs with wants – we have some very basic needs, such as water, food and shelter, without which we will die. Beyond that, there are other needs that are not physically essential, but which are important emotionally. If you do not already know about it, I recommend you look at Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. However, our needs are not the same as our wants, which can be defined as “It would be nice if I had it, but my world will not collapse if I don’t.” It seems that a lot of people today confuse needs with wants.
We live in a very materialistic world where consumerism is the new religion, shopping malls are the new cathedrals, and financial experts the new high priests. However, there is widespread awareness that this is unsustainable, and certainly not making us happy.
The people of Bhutan are mostly Buddhists, so they are aware of the Second Noble Truth - attachment to desire is the root of all suffering. They know that the endless quest for more money and things is a collision course with disaster, which is why they have made happiness their national purpose. They have replaced Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness. Even the World Bank has taken an interest in this initiative. I hope that this is a sign of better things to come.
So, what is the cure for “affluenza”. As with influenza, it is very contagious and there is no simple cure. It is not easy to want less and have less. It takes courage and strength. My suggestions are:
- Appreciate what you already have
- Declutter, by getting rid of what you do not really need or want. You will find that this has the added advantage of helping to declutter your mind
- Next time you feel the urge to buy something, stop and think: do I really need this?
Try Less, Achieve More
There is a widespread belief that when we try harder and make more effort, we will be more successful. This belief takes many forms. In school reports, management appraisals, and in sport, we often encounter the words “good effort” or “must try harder”.
People who work long and hard are highly valued by society and organisations, even when their work is of doubtful quality and efficacy. What matters is that they “work long and hard”. This is probably linked to the belief that the mighty triumph. We need look no further than American foreign policy to doubt the wisdom of this belief.
In reality, the opposite is often true. Trying less, with less effort, often produces better results. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, there are many examples of it in the natural and human worlds, when minimum input produces optimum output. This the Law of Reverse Effort in operation, and I would like to say a few words about it.
When I practised Judo at Leeds University in the early 1970s, I was regularly defeated by Kunimitsu, from Japan. He was much smaller than me. We used to joke about it afterwards over a beer, but he was very serious when he said to me, “The only reason I win is because you try too hard. You put too much energy into trying. It is your trying that allows me to win.”
I never forgot his words. When I thought about it later, I began to realise that when I tried too hard, things often went wrong. Conversely, when I eased off and allowed things to happen naturally, they usually went well.
I had another example of the Law of Reverse Effort in 1987, when climbing Mont Blanc. My friend and I stayed overnight at 11,000 feet at the Refuge de Gouter. The hostel was very busy because it was the last weekend of the summer season.
Since we knew that climbers usually departed for the summit by 2-00am at the latest, we set out at midnight to avoid the crowds. For a while we were alone on the mountain, picking out a route by the light of our head-torches. It was not long, however, before we could see lines of lights coming up behind us, and they were getting closer.
At the time I thought this strange, because we were both fit, and I felt that we were moving quickly. I was very surprised when the leading group eventually caught up with us. It turned out to be a guided party, led by a man from Chamonix who looked as if he was in his 70s. I never forgot his comment when I asked him how his group had managed to overtake us. He said, “You were probably going too fast”. I knew exactly what he meant. He had been doing the equivalent of good Judo on the mountain.
When we think about it, we see that the Law of Reverse Effort is a variant of “throttling back”, which we discussed earlier. It is basically about being relaxed and gentle in everything we do and say. Try it!
Control Less, Allow More
We live a huge paradox these days. On the one hand, we try to control more and more aspects of our lives, by trying to minimise risks and by trying to know in advance what will happen in the future. At the same time, more and more aspects of our lives are being controlled by others - CCTV cameras everywhere, laws and regulations covering everything, political correctness, and government surveillance of our emails and telephone calls.
Yet, despite all these attempts to control, the world seems to be spinning out of control, with its endless round of crises and problems. It feels as if the more we try to control, the more we lose control. By why do we try to control so much. Here are some of the reasons.
We think we can control people – we try to control how they vote, what they buy, what they believe, and how they behave. This works to some extent, because we live in an era of mass culture, mass media, and mass marketing. However, a lot of people are now aware of this, and they are, in their different ways, resisting attempts to be controlled.
We think we can control Nature – you will be able to think of many examples of this, such genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals, slimming pills, industrial farming, giant dams, anti-ageing techniques, and so on. You will also be able to think of the problems this causes.
We think we can control danger – we have become very risk-averse in the last few decades. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding growth in the “security” industry over the same period. This has been accompanied by an “equipment revolution”, in which every sport, indeed virtually every activity, has its own range of equipment, much of it designed to reduce risk. In my own sport, mountaineering, we used to go climbing in old clothes in the Sixties, with cheap “commando boots”, and a rope only if necessary. These days people are literally covered in expensive equipment, much of it unnecessary. A chain of shops, Decathlon, in my part of the world specialises in this. If you spend enough money, you leave the shop completely “equipmentised” for virtually any activity you think of. But I doubt that all this equipment makes the world any safer.
We think we can predict the future – go to Google, type in “unsuccessful predictions”, and have some fun. The vast insurance industry is based on predictions. Business strategy is based on predictions. But life rarely works out the way we expect. As John Lennon said: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” The reality is that we can control the future as little as we can control the moon and the stars.
This is what I suggest.
First and foremost, trust more. Trust other people, trust your instincts, and trust that the world is not the dangerous place some people think it is. Trust is the polar opposite of micromanaging, which is increasingly common. Managers do it in companies, and governments try to micromanage more and more aspects of our lives.
We have reached the ludicrous point where, if something is not prohibited, it is probably compulsory! When people are left to live and work without interference, they usually fare much better. Not only do they solve their problems in their own way, they also grow as people
We try to control because we are insecure and worry too much. Tibetans have a very sensible attitude towards worry. They say that if you can solve a problem, why worry about it? And that if you cannot solve a problem, then there is no point in worrying about it. Removing worry from your life frees up a huge amount of energy, and makes you happier. But for many of us, worrying is the habit of a lifetime. So how do we break the habit?
I suggest that you make two lists.
- The first list contains all your problems that you think you can do something about.
- The other is a list of the problems that you can do nothing about it. Now throw the second list away!
- Then look at the first list, choose just one item on it, and then do something about it right now. That immediate action may not be all you have to do, but at least you have set the process in motion.
- If you continue with this, addressing all the problems on the list, two things will happen:
- you will eventually solve your problems; and
- you will feel better.
- In fact, a third thing will probably happen too. When you worry less, you will feel less need to control. And when you stop trying to control, you are much more likely to be able to “flow” through life. That will make all the difference.
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Chris Thomson was a lawyer and economist in Scotland until the mid-80s, when he was asked to chair the Natural Medicines Commission in the UK. He then trained as a psychotherapist in London, before joining the Scottish Council Foundation, a think-tank in Edinburgh, set up in anticipation of devolution. From there he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he advised multinational corporations on various moral issues.
As well as passable Spanish and French, Chris speaks Chinese.
He now lives in the Catalan Pyrenees, where is a keen mountaineer. The ski slopes are only 20 minutes away!
Chris published Full Spectrum Intelligence in 2014. He is now writing The Inner Cosmos, and Intelligent Simplicity
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