Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less - by Marc Lesser

The guiding principle is that when we approach any task in the right spirit, we become more successful and efficient at it. When we engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors, when we feel less fear, when we become less distracted, we accomplish more of whatever we set our hearts to.

  1. We do less by taking the time to rest mentally and physically in between or outside of our usual activities, perhaps instituting a regular practice of meditation, retreats, breaks, and reflection.

  2. We do less by pausing in the midst of activities: mindfulness practice (such as coming in touch with our breath in between reading or sending emails) and walking meditation are two examples.

  3. We do less by identifying and reducing unnecessary activities. In this case, "unnecessary" means those things that are not in alignment with what we want to accomplish.

  4. We do less by the very quality of our being. We must be completely present for what we are doing, without sacrificing or rushing what's in front of us in order to get to "more important" stuff later. No matter how mundane the activity, treat everything as important and take pleasure in it. At bottom, whatever we are doing right now is what we are engaged in and it deserves our full attention and appreciation.

  5. We do less by integrating effort with a feeling of effortlessness. This sounds like a contradiction but it isn't. With practice, we all can find that sweet spot that combines engagement, creativity, and composure.

I would propose that we always accomplish more when we approach each moment and task in an open, relaxed, and fully engaged manner -- whether leading a meeting, answering emails, or taking our children to school. In this way, our sense of accomplishment depends more on the way we act (which we can control) than on the results (which may be out of our control).


When we drop our conditioning, it's quite remarkable how the ordinary becomes extraordinary: the sky comes alive, the flowers come alive, time comes alive, and our experience comes alive. In this state of aliveness, we are more composed, more ready, and more productive. This sense of aliveness instills a fresh sense of meaning in one's activities and relationships. It also opens up new possibilities, since we are no longer bound by our past. The result is increased focus, creativity, and productivity. And less fear.

What we call metal is in fact liquid that has become solid. By applying heat to metal, we soften it, returning it to its original condition, and we can then shape the metal with very little effort. Attempting to shape metal when it is too cool and solid requires tremendous effort and doesn't accomplish very much. If the metal doesn't bend, don't hammer harder -- apply more heat. Particularly concerning ourselves, our beliefs, and our relationships, everything is malleable. Once we understand and embody the fluid nature of our world, we reduce our fear and dramatically increase our ability to accomplish more with less effort. Much like the process of applying heat to metal, retreats, meditation, and mindfulness practices act to soften ideas, views, and emotions that have become hardened. Using them, we can stop reliving the past and thereby loosen the solid quality of our fear of what might be.


I generally take part in an annual six- to seven-day Zen retreat in the redwood forests of northern California. One of the main reasons I take part in retreats, and believe so powerfully in them, is that being on a retreat gives me time to address my deepest fears.

We always benefit whenever we consciously step outside of our regular routines and life. However, longer retreats are most successful when they are structured, so you have support and guidance to get you through the particularly challenging parts that would, ordinarily, make you want to get up and do anything else.

When you go on or create your retreat, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • CHANGE THE PACE: Slow down. Structure a day, or part of a day, where the focus is on paying attention to yourself and your surroundings when you have nothing to accomplish. Slow down the pace from your usual activity level by removing all external distractions. Leave your cell phone and BlackBerry behind.

  • FIND A NEW PERSPECTIVE: If possible, retreat away from your office space and home space. Be in a place that is less familiar and where you are less apt to feel the pull of everyday tasks and usual routines. Quiet and spaciousness are very important.

  • GET TO KNOW YOUR MONKEY MIND: Don't be surprised or discouraged if you notice how busy and noisy your mind is at the beginning of your retreat. In Buddhist practice this is sometimes referred to as "monkey mind," the mind that is always jumping around from tree to tree. Just pay attention to it; stay with and be curious about monkey mind. Use your meditation and mindfulness practices ; come back to your breath and body.

  • BECOME SICK OF YOURSELF: Pay attention to the patterns and habits of your thinking. Stay with the stories you tell yourself -- what you could be doing instead of being on retreat, how bored and uncomfortable you are, what a waste of time this is, how frustrating it feels to repeatedly face your fears, and so on. Let yourself become sick of yourself.

  • FIND YOUR CENTER: Notice that you are more than your stories. In the busyness of life, you can easily become fooled into believing that the stories you tell about yourself are you, and that they absolutely define you. As your mind becomes more quiet, you gain access to your still, undefinable center. You glimpse the ways you create these stories about yourself, about others, and about the world. Are these stories necessarily true? What if the opposite is true? Could both versions of the story be true? Who is it that is creating these thoughts? Find your center beyond your stories, beyond your personality. This is the realm of all that you are and have the potential to be.

  • REFRESH AND RENEW: Allow yourself to step (or more accurately, drop) into a place of not knowing, of uncertainty, of joy and refreshment. See if you can just appreciate everything you are, even your doubts and discomfort ; just appreciate being alive.

  • BLEND THE MUNDANE AND THE SACRED: See and appreciate the gamut of life -- from the immensity and sacredness of all existence to our need to earn a living and even to our need to eat and afterward wash the dishes, sweep the floors, and clean the counters.

  • LET GO OF EXPECTATIONS: Just stop. Sit. Let go of the routines and activities of your life. Don't expect anything. Be curious. Be open. Let yourself be surprised. As with meditation, you can't do a retreat "right" or "wrong." Don't get caught in comparing your experience to anyone else's. Of course, you will judge; you will compare. Pay attention to this. "Ah, isn't this judging and comparing interesting?"

  • REENTER AND RE-CREATE YOUR WORLD: Be gentle with yourself as you return to your life after retreat. Accept the people, the problems, the joy and discomfort, just as if you were in retreat. Also, accept your annoyance, impatience, and judgments (about yourself and others). To bring the spirit of your retreat to your life means to accept whatever comes up, not that each moment of your life will or should be henceforth serene. Welcome back to the world! At the same time, when you feel annoyed or impatient, see if you can bring your "retreat mind" into the situation. Notice the feelings, pause, and learn from whatever state of mind arises.


Experiment with the practice of generosity. Give your attention, your caring, and your curiosity to those you live with and work with, without expecting anything in return. Take it on as an actual practice. Say yes, to yourself and to others. Notice and write about your acts of generosity as well as the generosity of others.

List Your Fears and Act

On a sheet of paper, make a list of your fears. Label one column "My Fears," and list all the fears you can think of. Be as specific as possible. For example, fear of losing your job, fear of not having enough money, fear of speaking in front of an audience, fear of not meeting a soul mate, fear of not having children, fear of losing a loved one to a terminal illness, fear of not finding a profession about which to feel passionate. Write down all of the things you are afraid of in your life. Then label the adjacent column "Next Actions." In this column list any concrete actions that would directly address or quiet these fears.



Asking for regular and honest feedback from others is a valuable way to unearth our false assumptions and transform them into understanding. Is the way we think of ourselves the same as the way we are perceived : in the workplace, on a team, as a leader or collaborator, at home with loved ones? Just opening our ears and listening with calmness can help us learn to hear criticism in a way that does not immediately trigger defensiveness. Feedback is one of the simplest and most direct ways to measure whether our results match our goals. If we mean to be helpful, do people experience us that way? If not, why not? This kind of feedback can help us see our own false assumptions (about ourselves, about the needs of others) and fix self-defeating behaviors that often undermine our efforts and relationships. The difficult challenge is to hear feedback without becoming defensive, and then, when necessary, to change ourselves and our assumptions in light of it. Soliciting feedback from trusted and truthful allies is one of the most targeted ways to do less and accomplish more.

  • Ask a positive question: "What (or how) can I do better?" Make your question more specific, and include your desires and goals: "I would like to achieve [X]. What can I do better in [these areas]?"

The appropriate response to sincere feedback, whether you agree with it or not, is, "Thank you, I appreciate what you've said, and I will think about these things." The next step is to do just that: without berating or beating up on yourself, or the person giving the feedback, use the feedback to consider what assumptions you should discard as false, and what direction or attitude would lead to a more satisfying result.

Typically, whenever we receive criticism, our immediate reaction is to formulate a response or defend ourselves, and when we do this, we stop listening. Instead, when receiving feedback, practice looping, in which you focus only on actively and accurately listening to what is said, and then summarizing it back once the person is finished. Once you're done summarizing, ask: "Did I hear what you said? Did I leave out anything important?" From the other side of the table, so to speak, "dipping" is the practice of being aware of your feelings as someone is "looping" what you said. As your words are being summarized, what is your emotional state? Are you listening from start to finish? You don't necessarily need to express what you are feeling, but "dipping" down into your feelings can add more information or help clarify next steps.

Identifying Triggers

Triggers are based on false beliefs, assumptions, and predictions that we make and that make us unhappy and entrenched in hurt feelings. These can be survival patterns from past experiences, or habitual ways of responding we've acquired to protect ourselves. The first positive step to take when triggered is to name it: "Oh, I'm triggered." The next step is to create space and slow down. When we get triggered, it is best not to react or respond, since our strong emotions have more to do with an unresolved reaction to our past than with what just triggered our feelings. Take a break. Go to the restroom. Walk outside for a few minutes. At least pause and breathe deeply several times. This is not a good time to make decisions or give in to the way we habitually respond.

You may also want to plan in advance an antidote you can rely on when you notice that you are triggered. One of the best I know of is simply to pause. Just stop. Take a moment to disengage from the situation, to slow down, and to be aware of your breath. Another antidote you might explore is to intentionally say a word or phrase that can anchor or ground you when you notice you are triggered. For example you might say to yourself, "I'm here now."

Know Thyself

In your journal begin writing with the following open-ended sentences. Don't think about the task very much or self-edit before writing; just write and see what you can learn. When I get triggered, I notice that *___**. When conflicts arise, I generally feel *____**. What works well for me when difficult emotions arise is *___**.

Ask For, and Offer, Help

Tired of making assumptions or erroneously jumping to conclusions? Ask for help; don't assume you know. Approaching life and relationships as one who is still learning is more effective than acting like someone who knows everything, someone with nothing to learn. Asking increases understanding, it opens a dialogue with others, and through it we can build unexpected connections. Experiment with practicing three specific types of effective asking: i) make requests; 2) ask for the benefit of experience; and 3) make offers to help others.


  • Appreciate Impermanence

  • Clarify Aspirations and Create Next Steps: Make two lists. Title the first one "Aspirations, Plans, and Projects." Title the column next to this "Next Steps," and list concrete action steps toward implementation of each aspiration, plan, or project.

  • Retrain Pavlov's Dog: Learn to check your email only once per day. Schedule think time and reflection time at the beginning and end of each day.

  • Savor Borrowed Time: Borrowed time is a brief moment when we do nothing; we just breathe and smell the sweetness of the air, think briefly about the task we just completed or are about to start; or we listen to the birds flying, our heartbeat, or the conversations around us (without participating in them).

  • Create Your Own Toolkit for Reducing Stress: Explore routines and rituals to center and relax during the day. Just breathing deeply and from the diaphragm three or four times, several times a day, can be a great start. If you work at a computer for much of the day, consider setting a timer to remind you to stop and stretch at regular intervals.

Work Like an Athlete

One strategy common to most great athletes, in any sport, is to work in bursts of peak activity and then take mini-breaks. While at work or while engaged in any intense activity, stop at regular intervals; take a deep breath, and let your entire body relax. If you are sitting down, stand up. Take a few small and relaxed steps. Let your eyes partially close as you become aware of your breath and body. Let the muscles in your body relax. For one conscious minute, or the length of several slow breaths, let go of thinking about work or whatever problem you are engaged in -- put your attention on your breath and body. If you are feeling intense stress in the form of anger or anxiety, stop: pause, feel your connection to the earth by noticing your feet coming into contact with the floor. This simple connection with the earth can help you to relax and to open yourself to new possibilities with more clarity and skill.


Each night before you go to sleep, spend ten to fifteen minutes recording your thoughts, plans, fears, highlights of the day, or aspirations. Experiment with just writing without editing. Doing so is both cathartic and revealing. See if you can approach writing as an exploration, without quite knowing what you will find. Journaling helps build self-awareness by highlighting recurring problems and negative patterns that otherwise may continue without our noticing. After a week or month, go back and read what you've journaled. Do you see patterns or insights that surprise or disappoint you, or make you feel better about yourself?


Positive Priming

Any time we approach a task, we should stop, take our mental pulse, and make sure our attitude and expectations are positive.

Kaizen: Small Changes for Big Results

"What is one change I could make in my life today that would have an impact on the quality of my day?"

  1. Pay attention to the details, especially the small ones, of your activity.

  2. Create goals or benchmarks and ways to compare what you actually do to those benchmarks.

  3. Create innovations and put these into action.

  4. Pay attention and measure the results of these innovations.

  5. Find a way to incorporate these improvements, in ways that are practical and concrete.

  6. Continue this cycle.


Tension, anxiety, extra effort, an overly busy mind, our inner critic, any negative inner voice: these all can interfere with a calm, composed mind and affect our performance. Less striving, less trying, less racing, less pushing can lead to surprisingly better results.

Ask this question -- "What am I doing extra? Where am I holding tension?" -- during everyday activities, such as composing emails or writing at the computer screen. Are your attitude and approach relaxed? Are you thinking too hard? Can you reduce or release this extra effort? Practice doing so on a regular basis and see if your productivity doesn't improve.

Take a Break

Every day, schedule a ten-minute break during the afternoon. Walk outside and just pay attention to your walking, to your breath, to whatever is around you. Let go of any agenda, of trying to solve any problem. As thoughts arise in your consciousness, note them, but always return your awareness to walking, breath, body, and environment. Then, at the end of the day, as you lie down for sleep, put your hands on your chest and take a few deep breaths. Let your breath and your belly soften. Allow a question or issue to float into your awareness. Open yourself to different ways of approaching and understanding the question or issue. Upon waking in the morning, again, take a few gentle breaths and allow the question to surface. Do any new insights come to you? Do you have any new direction about your next steps?

Slow Down to Move Fast. There are three primary practices for slowing down your world: preparation, mindfulness, and focus.

Embrace Paradox

List the paradoxes that describe yourself. In what ways do you embody contradiction and inconsistency? Next, explore each of these paradoxes in your journal. Each morning or evening, choose one of your paradoxes and describe it more fully. How does it express itself in your actions and emotions? If you have trouble coming up with paradoxes, here is a list to get you started. To one degree or another, we all embody these paradoxes. Take one at a time and explore how they apply to you:

  • I make precise observations, and I act with abandon.

  • I like to have clear plans, and I like to forget my plans.

  • I am predictable, and I am unpredictable.

  • I love structure and clarity, and I love flexibility.

  • I like to study myself, and I like to forget about myself.

  • I am strong, and I am flexible.

  • I don't take anything personally, and I take everything personally.

  • I see my work as sacred and mundane.

  • I am organized and disciplined, and I am creative and innovative.

  • I am strong and decisive, and I am vulnerable.

  • I am young, and I am old.