“How about this one?”
I glanced at the dark green shirt my wife was holding up. Not my favourite. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worn it.
We’re a small family, and we pride ourselves on living ecologically. Even so, our apartment felt like it was bursting at the seams, which is why we’d organized this clear-out. The dark green shirt was the fifth one I’d looked at before sheepishly shaking my head: straight into the charity pile.
The experience reminded me of an editor I used to work with. An easy-going guy, he was ruthless when it came to cutting text. He’d take me through my work, line by line, asking over and over: “Do you really need this?” Ninety-nine per cent of the time, the answer was no. And as unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs were weeded out, the core content began to emerge – and shine.
Like my old drafts, we live in a world that’s brimming with unnecessary content. Our desks, schedules and brains are cluttered: We over-explain (to appear smarter), over-plan (to feel popular) and overload ourselves – and our to-do lists – to breaking point. Quantity, not quality, has become our barometer for success.
Can we apply the same editor’s eye to other areas of our life? By deliberately eliminating the non-essentials, we give way to greater focus and simplicity. Here’s what else I think we could do with less of.
1. Fewer interruptions
It’s been 11 years since David Foster Wallace coined the term 'total noise’: the seething static of every particular thing and experience. Today, this has just become part of the texture of living on a planet that will, by next year, boast one mobile phone for each of its seven billion inhabitants.
The average American checks their smartphone 36 times an hour. When they’re not interrupting themselves, someone else is – every eight minutes, to be exact (or 60 times per day). This causes them to lose focus on the task at hand 40% of the time. And while all this is going on, they’re juggling around 605 emails per week. According to the Information Overload Research Group, this time-wasting costs the economy $997 billion a year.
So what’s the solution? I recommend a self-imposed digital diet. It doesn’t have to be radical. At the end of my day, for example, I put my phone on charge in a different room at least an hour before I go to bed.
This lets my mind quiet down, blue-light- and distraction-free.
And I don’t re-check it until I’ve set foot in the JotForm offices: no work calls, no emails, nothing. This gives me a 14-plus-hour ‘fast’ from the triggers of technology every day. And when I do knuckle down to work, I feel refreshed and alert, not mentally depleted from hours of tapping, swiping and scrolling.
Checking our phone from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep encourages a reactive, scatty state of mind. But by drawing a clear line between on and offline, you’ll sleep better, work smarter and think healthier.
I also take a ‘digital sabbath’ away from all forms of technology every Saturday and an entire ‘think week’ away from my company. One thing’s for sure: It makes my Monday mornings feel a whole lot better.
2. Less over-explaining
In the middle of a lengthy email or a long meeting, I often find myself wishing that people would just get to the point. Often, the person who needs to get to the point is me.
We’re conditioned to sugarcoat difficult conversations with mindless pleasantries. We believe lengthy explanations showcase our authority. From university dissertations to blog posts, we value word counts over clarity. And often, we simply under-prepare for situations, which means we often end up talking or writing more than is necessary.
This leads to two-hour meetings that could be over in 20. Page-long emails with a couple of lines of real content. Articles abandoned halfway through. And most importantly, loss of focus from everyone else involved.
The human brain can absorb 750 words a minute, but the average person can only speak about 150 words a minute, meaning there are an extra 600 words that can float around in the receiver’s brain. That’s how people talk themselves out of a sale, an argument or a business deal.
“Brevity is an essential skill that can propel people’s careers in an age where the people that they’re talking to are overwhelmed,” says Joseph McCormack, author of BRIEF: Making a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.
And it all boils down to smart preparation. McCormack suggests making a mind map with the acronym BRIEF to organize ideas before presenting them:
- B (Background)
- Provide a quick context – what prompted the update?
- R (Reason)
- Explain why you’re speaking now – why should they pay attention?
- I (Information)
- Provide two to three key nuggets of information you want to share. What are the bullet points of the conversation?
- E (End)
- Decide on what note you want to leave the conversation.
- F (Follow-up)
- Consider the questions you anticipate.
Schedule rigorously. Self-edit ruthlessly. When you can, use pictures and video instead of text – people respond
better to visuals. Time is our greatest luxury. Wasting it is bad manners. Throw others (and yourself) a lifeline by getting to the point.
3. Less choice
Bran flakes … cornflakes … frosties … “When did we start needing so much cereal?” I mutter to myself as my eyes glaze over in the supermarket aisle. Recently, I’ve started buying organic, low-sugar options only. Yes, this helps with my fitness regime. But really, I’m deliberately limiting my own choice.
Clearly, choice matters, particularly when it comes to big things that impact on our beliefs and autonomy. But most of the time, the choices we face have very little meaning.
It’s been 14 years since Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice. Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, he said, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety and depression. Whether you’re deliberating between chocolate bars, TV shows, energy companies or profiles on Tinder, more choice equals more overwhelm. We waste hours dithering, changing our mind and going in circles.
My advice? Set criteria for any areas of your life that sap your energy. This can also be a chance to release your inner do-gooder. Less is more – eliminate the non-essentials and limit your choices. Devise a weekly meal plan. Commit to buying second-hand clothes only. Shop locally.
Constraints illuminate and simplify. And when life feels manic, repetition and routine provide a much-needed sanctuary of calm and familiarity.
4. Less busy-ness
We associate people’s worth with how busy they are: how many hours they work, how little they sleep, how off the charts their stress levels are. Because being ‘busy’ means we’re productive, and in demand and great at our jobs. We’re moving forward. We’re not wasting our time. It’s better to be doing something, anything, than nothing at all.
Keeping on top of things is good – unless we miss crucial details because we’re rushing. Or waste hours on a simple task because we’re exhausted. Or burn bridges because we’re stressed and miserable.
The busiest people are often the most oblivious. Slowing down gives you time to appreciate the context. Letting your brain switch off and repair its synapses will lead to greater focus and fresh ideas. Switch off and wait.
5. Less unnecessary effort
In The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferris popularized the concept of the 'minimum effective dose.' He uses boiling water to illustrate his point: “To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it 'more boiled.' Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”
It’s a simple idea that applies to many areas of our lives. At some point, the extra work we put in is unlikely to give more rewards. Returns begin to diminish, fast. In other words, it’s no longer worth it.
Pareto’s principle states that 80% of your results come from 20% of the effort. Just trying to pinpoint one task or area where you can reduce your energy by half (and still get your desired outcome) can be an eye-opener. Then spend the time you save on something that recharges you.
It takes courage to live with less. But I think it can make all the difference. It all boils down to a simple principle: eliminate before you add. And it can be applied to anything.
Don’t take money you don’t need (we’ve built JotForm without a single dime in outside funding). Don’t buy a green shirt if you already have one (or, in my case, don’t buy one at all). This ensures you don’t end up overcrowding your life with anything that doesn’t add value.
Limitations create space. Space gives way to greater movement. Movement pushes you forward. Take a red pen to your life and see what happens.
Aytekin Tank is founder and CEO of JotForm, an online form creation software with 4 million users worldwide and more than 100 employees. A developer by trade but writer by heart, Tank shares stories about how he exponentially grew his company without receiving any outside funding.