Do less, get moreThe 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 color 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.’” (See Why We Humblebrag about Being Busy.) He’s right though, there’s a huge social push for being busy, or keeping up the appearance of it. I can see at least four great things that come from simplifying our lives by designing and orchestrating space between things in our lives: a better brain, better communication, better performance and better leadership.

A 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 practice. 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 two 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 recognizing 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 and pep talk from his coach) could make or break the match. Google has sleep pods, Twitter has 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 are 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 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 everyday work, your goal should be to do nothing!” (See The effectiveness of doing nothing as a leader.) 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.”

5 steps to doing less and getting more

Want to take things down a notch? Here are five simple steps to doing less: 

1. Conduct a radical life audit

Make space in your life by conducting a radical life audit. Recently I asked myself the question, “Is this life giving to me and others involved?” Am I really contributing value? The result was stepping down from several boards, and resigning from two voluntary positions.

2. Check the expiration dates

All activities carry an expiration date. We’re great at starting things, not so great at ending them. What are you doing just because they are there to be done? Is their purpose fulfilled already? Doing things by habit does not always serve us well, so you will want to review the key activities in your life.

3. Try a different location

Try working offsite. Quarterly might be too difficult at first so aim to do it twice a year. In our company we worked offsite in Sydney, had lunch in the Rocks, brought in a management consultant and had a blast. The next time we took a day in the Gallery in Canberra.

4. Just say no

Say no to at least one good opportunity every week. Just because you’re invited to do something fun, nice, significant or worthwhile does not mean it should get an automatic yes. It is wonderfully rewarding to say no and set a boundary, then see how much time you get back for yourself.

5. Outsource and automate

Use the four D system (do it, document it, delegate it, dump it) to simplify your task list. Then go through everything else seeing what you can outsource, maybe even utilizing an offshore professional to do the work while you sleep. After that, ask if anything can be automated, turned into a system and done by a computer.

As you can see, much can be gained by doing less. By simplifying, questioning what you are doing and concentrating on the tasks you actually add value to, you can build your business and still have time for sleep and your personal life. You might even be perceived as more charismatic while doing it.

Does this sound good to you? Are you going to try any of the techniques listed above? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.