How to Do More by Doing Less
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Why is this business named Tao Websites? It's a reminder about a shared value in our organization: Intentionally choosing where to put our energy. Taoism (or Daosim) is an ancient Chinese philosophy, and Lao-Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, is a founding figure. A main idea in Tao Te Ching is the idea of wu wei. There are a lot of translations of wu wei: non-doing, non-action, or effortless action. This can be confusing, though: surely a successful businessperson can't sit around doing nothing all day? I find the clearest and most actionable definition to be this one from philosophy professor Mark D. White in Psychology Today:
Wu wei is about knowing when effort is appropriate and when it's wasted.
Okay, enough philosophy, you may be saying, but before we go on to practical tips, this is really key: You must define success for yourself. You decide what's important, meaningful, and valuable. If you are a business owner, you must also lead in defining goals, values, and mission for your business. In addition to philosophy books, there are entire industries of people who can help you define success for your business and yourself: therapists, life coaches, strategic planners, and financial advisors.
Pause from the busy-ness to reflect and detox
Personal and professional introspection is hard to do when you're hurtling through life at jet speed. The recent pandemic has given many people a moment to pause and reflect on their priorities, both personal and professional. What matters to you: Changing the world? Supporting your family? Spending time with your kids? Making a certain amount of money?
Imagine this scenario: You pause to reflect and remember that you started your own business to have more time with your family. You realize that family and work-life balance are key tenets for yourself and your business. You also realize that you have achieved enough financial success to hire an assistant. This will fulfill your values of spending more time with your family and helping others in your community. Why didn't you do this before? You might have been on autopilot: often we become used to a certain way of doing things (working alone, for example), and don't think of new possibilities.
This time to pause and reflect can also help you detox from being addicted to busy-ness. I've previously had the type of job where it's normal to work more than 40 hours a week and everything feels urgent and important. I was barely able to calm down enough to sleep. My memory, focus, mood, and creativity all suffered. While a go-go lifestyle can feel exciting, it can also be bad for your health, if it crosses the line into chronic stress. Burnout is a major issue for both individuals and organizations. Clinical psychologist Dr. Christine Hibbert explains how a full life feels different from a busy life. For people who are addicted to busy-ness, she suggests a detox, and then:
After you’ve detoxed, only add back those things that are essential to you and your family’s well-being or that bring your life greater meaning and purpose.
Of course, a business owner or entrepreneur will have basic business functions they (or someone they hire/contract with) must perform: accounting, marketing, responding to client requests, etc.
Pay attention to the essentials
Now, I don't know about you, but there are certain essentials I'm happy to outsource: taxes, garbage disposal, and home construction, to name a few. I'm grateful for good accountants, sanitation workers, and contractors. Then there are the essentials that I need to do or experience directly. These include:
I like research, writing, web design, and learning new tech skills. I use and constantly improve these skills to earn enough money to comfortably support myself. When I do excellent or creative work, I also feel good about my contribution. While this aspect of my life is important financially and psychologically, it's easy to overemphasize in the culture of busy-ness. On tech company Atlassian's blog, Andrew Merle summarizes recent research arguing that the ideal number of hours in a workweek is 38. An article by Steve Galevski in the Harvard Business Review advocates for 6 hour workdays. How? He recommends several techniques we rely on here at Tao:
Eliminate unnecessary tasks
Outsource when it makes sense
There are serious health consequences for overworking, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and increased workplace injuries. Certainly, the ideal work day--and an ideal wellness routine--will vary from person to person. Professionals such as nutritionists, personal trainers, and doctors can help individuals make a health and wellness plan. For me, wellness includes a quiet home, plenty of sleep, home-cooked meals, daily time outdoors, and mind-body practices like yoga and qi gong. If you are an employer, you can also prioritize your workers' well being, which might ultimately benefit you with a happier, more productive, and more loyal workforce.
Family and Friends
Most of us don't go through life alone. Pew Research found that, in 17 advanced economies, family was the most meaningful to most people. If you aren't married and don't have close relatives, your "family of choice" may be equally important to you. Many people are also very connected to their furry companions and want to spend more quality time with them. It's important to set aside technology, work, and literally do nothing in order to deeply connect with myself and others. Sarah Rasml in Psychology Today backs this recommendation up. A thoughtful approach to work means more free time to spend with the people and pets you care about.
Other Meaningful Activities
People are fascinatingly different, and something deeply enjoyable to one person may seem like torture to another. One person may feel deeply called to volunteer or participate in a religious community. Another loves to travel and engage with other cultures. I say, follow your bliss! The common key is to set your priorities and be realistic about how many hours are in the day. I cut back on social media so I have more time to savor the important essentials. Some find a detailed schedule helpful in making time for your priorities.
Focus on one thing at a time
When I was caught up in the busy-ness cycle, I participated in a pervasive practice of reading emails during long meetings--who had the time to read them later? What if I get an important email? Yet, shorter meetings with everyone 100% present would have been much more effective! Multitasking is tempting when you feel busy all the time, but it's not effective. For most people multitasking is actually rapidly switching between tasks, and the American Psychological Association says,
Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.
Better to cut out things that aren't necessary than attempt ineffective strategies like multitasking. One of the reasons the Harvard Business Review article cited above recommends shorter workdays is so that people can spend more time in their flow state: that condition where you lose track of time because you're so immersed in doing something. People are better able to do complex, creative work in a flow state. Glaveski recommends:
Make it okay for employees to not be in a hyper-responsive state and schedule uninterrupted time to get into a state of flow. Similarly, make it not okay to be interrupting people on a whim. My team has a simple rule; if a team member has their headphones in, you are not to disturb them unless it absolutely, positively can’t wait (which is hardly ever, by the way). Doing so has been shown to decrease workplace stress.
Flow brings us full circle back to the Tao Te Ching and wu wei. Another way to think about wu wei is to flow with life, like water. Water gets where it's going, but it doesn't exert unnecessary effort.
Choosing to do less didn't eliminate stress from my life, but it did allow me to savor the important things and cultivate a calmer and more resilient state of mind. I'm a better designer, writer, partner, and human being when I'm well-rested and happy. I get some of my best "a-ha!" moments when I'm walking in the woods or reading a book for fun. This seems obvious now, but it took me a long time to get over the pressure to fill every second of my time with obligations--sometimes several at once. It was hard work to define enough and success for myself. I leave you with a quote from the Tao Te Ching:
Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.