In our quest for a better life, we so often focus on what to add. But what if it were just as important to let go of things?
After all, as French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery so beautifully put it:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
If you are ready to move beyond the busyness and hustle to deeper levels of productivity and peace, it might be time for you to embrace the art of reduction.
To make this philosophy applicable to your life, I will run you through a typical workday and point out places where you can make your life better by reducing or taking something away. The examples I provide are based on my own experience and in many cases backed up by research.
I am also including a small, actionable step you can take to put this into practice right away.
Let’s start at the beginning of your day.
For many of us, we start with a cup of coffee. The problem with coffee is that it doesn’t actually make us more productive in the long term. While it initially helps your body to produce more adrenaline and dopamine, these chemicals eventually begin to fade. In short, coffee helps you to perk up only to crash back down afterwards.
So what are you to do if you still feel like you could really need a hit of caffeine? Try green tea instead. It’ll provide you with an energy boost without causing that you won’t have to pay for later.
When I stopped drinking coffee every day and switched over to green tea a few years ago, I noticed a difference in my energy levels. That might be why a number of hardworking lawyers I know opt for green tea instead of coffee.
And in my experience, it’s easier to pull an all-nighter on green tea than on coffee. (But of course, it’s much better to get sufficient sleep instead.)
What to do: To begin putting this into practice, replace one of your daily cups of coffee with a mug of green tea and see how that makes you feel. After a week of this, you can replace another cup of coffee with green tea. If you like the results, continue until you don’t need the coffee anymore.
(Note: this article was written in a world before COVID-19. I decided to not remove this part of the article because I think it will still be relevant in the future.)
Once you leave the door, it’s likely that you have to commute to work. How does that impact your life?
Well, there’s research on how a longer commute impacts peoples’ happiness. The bottom line: people are as happy (or rather, unhappy) with a 19% pay cut as they are with an additional 20 minutes of commute.
I almost always lived relatively close to where I was working. When I worked in an international law firm (which naturally included long hours) my “commute” consisted of less than a 10-minute walk.
Every time I stayed late at work, I was grateful for this. Instead of needing to hassle over getting a cab, I got to walk home in a calm, quiet neighborhood — which actually helped me to wind down and get some fresh air before going to bed.
(Of course, depending on how safe it is where you live, midnight strolls might not always be a good idea.)
Now I work from home. Whenever I need to spend an hour or so on getting somewhere by public transit or care, I realize how glad I am that I don’t need to do that regularly.
What to do: Consider how your commute makes you feel. If you can’t reduce your journey to work, experiment with making it more pleasant.
For instance, if you usually drive, you could listen to different podcasts until you find one you really like. You could also try public transport or carpooling with someone else. If you already use public transport, you might want to bring headphones or a book.
To begin, decide on one thing you will try out to make your commute more pleasant.
3. The News
Let’s assume you spend your free time listening or reading the news. How might that influence your life?
Well, according to research, keeping up with the news negatively impacts people (in fact I've written an entire article about what consuming news does to us... and how to stop).
But what can you do? Well, you can try opting for curated news tailored to your interests (or disinterests). Or just stop watching it altogether.
If something of global significance happens, you’ll find out one way or another. For instance, on November 9, 2001, a friend of mine drove through his university area in Northern Germany. A professor he knew stood dumbstruck in the middle of an intersection, signaled to him, walked over and told him about the attack on the Twin Towers.
Before the invention of the printing press, that’s how news was spread. Verbally. Apparently, that medium still exists in the 21st century.
So, cut down on the news, especially if your national news is noisy (as is the case in the US). When I did so, my mood improved considerably.
What to do: Only allow yourself to check the news once a day and notice how this makes you feel. Because a lot of people check the news as a form of distraction, you might also consider installing an app that blocks news website and spend less time on Social Media.
If checking the news less often makes you feel better, consider further reducing your news consumption.
4. Animal Products
Let’s assume it’s time for lunch. What will you eat? If you want to have more energy, you might consider skipping the animal products during lunch hour.
Today, people consume much more meat than they used to — usually several times per day. Our total “meat production” (which, in many cases, is a fancy word for untold horrors) has grown 4–5 fold since 1961. Something that used to be rare has now become an everyday occurrence.
How might this impact productivity?
When I worked at university, our whole team would typically eat lunch together. Afterwards, my colleagues would usually complain about sleepiness. I found myself thinking: “What are you talking about? I’m not sleepy...”
As a vegetarian at that time, I only had some measly options in our cafeteria (the cafeteria later brought in a famous vegan chef to redesign their whole menu but, alas, that was after my time there).
As a result, I would often end up with something like salad, veggies, rice — whereas my colleagues had a more substantial meal which generally included meat and other animal products.
I don’t think our different energy levels in the afternoon were a coincidence. I’ve noticed that I typically don’t feel tired after meals even when other people do (and I don’t think it’s because I have a vastly different metabolism).
You don’t have to believe me, though. Just explore how different eating choices impact your energy levels in the afternoon. (And if you end up going fully vegan, make sure to get enough Vitamin B12.)
What to do: Replace one meal a week where you would typically eat meat with a vegan or vegetarian option. Notice how that impacts your energy. If you like how it makes you feel, you can further reduce your meat consumption.
Let’s assume it’s lunchtime and you’re talking to someone about a divisive topic. Chances are that this conversation might turn into a clash of ideologies.
If you look at the world, most conflicts come from people believing too strongly in any particular ideology — whether it’s the belief that “might makes right,” “there’s only one truth — my truth,” “the market will solve this,” “check your privilege” etc.
The problem with ideology is this: life is complex. Even if a specific ideology is right in 80% of cases, it is still wrong in the remaining 20%.
For instance, a lot of people say they believe in a free market. But hardly anybody is actually in favor of a 100% free market, no matter how libertarian they are.
If you want to know what a totally free market with no restrictions would look like, consider how things are on the Darknet. In a 100% free market, you would be able to buy bioweapons and human beings — a reality that no sane person wants.
Let me give you a personal example of ideological flexibility. I’m an ethical vegan. But I’m also trying not to be an ideological one. Typically, I’m not a fan of hunting (as a child on a school excursion, I once was sent with a hunter to observe animals and he ended up killing a cat right in front of me. It was rather messy. As I said, I’m not a fan of hunting).
However, a while ago my husband and I were talking about monster pythons in the Everglades and how this invasive species is ruining the ecosystem.
To deal with that, a hunt was organized with rewards to hunters for killing as many of the pythons as possible. And yes, I’m a vegan rooting for the hunters’ success in this particular case.
Ideological rigidity keeps us from thinking original thoughts. Instead of looking at the complexity of the situation, we pretend it’s simple. As American journalist H.L. Mencken put it:
“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
So, try ideological flexibility. As a lawyer, I can tell you how impossible it is to draft a founding document (such as a constitution) which covers every potentiality. Why should it be possible for a single ideology to do that?
From a post-ideological point of view, I can ascribe to whatever viewpoint actually works in the situation at hand. Which is so much more effective than trying to fit a peg into a square hole.
So, instead of ascribing to any particular ideology, just do whatever makes sense in the situation at hand.
What to do: Think of one belief you have. Now, ask yourself if there is a situation where it doesn’t make sense. For instance, a belief could be that “children should honor their parents.” Does this include situations where parents are physically abusive?
6. Excess in Anything
Let’s say you’ve decided to go “all-in” when it comes to your career. You’re so passionate about work that it will be your absolute priority which means staying late every single day.
How could that be problematic? As Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, said,
“Everything in moderation.”
Something that is good for you (such as water) can kill you if you take in very, very, very large quantities of it in a short amount of time.
While I tend to be passionate about my work, I’ve discovered that I stop loving what I do when I overwork for long stretches of time. (Given that I help people create work they love, I really want to avoid getting to a place where I feel any degree of animosity about what I do — because that would make me feel like a total hypocrite.)
There’s also a point of diminishing returns in many things. If I meditate for 20 minutes, it helps me feel great. If I meditate 20 hours, I feel bad because I don’t get to sleep, eat etc.
Moderation is even helpful in our habits. People, especially those on a self-growth path, tend to overdo things. If something helps, than a lot of that something helps a lot, right?
Not always true.
What to do: Pick one area in your life where you tend to lean towards excess. For instance, if you have an elaborate morning practice that means you get to spend less time with loved ones, consider cutting it down to the most essential elements. Notice if the more moderate version makes you feel better or worse.
Let’s assume it’s the end of your workday and you’re proud of what you accomplished. (Which is wonderful!) It’s good to celebrate our accomplishments.
However, is it possible to take our work (and ourselves) too seriously? You bet.
As British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it:
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
The way I think about self-important is this: in about 100 years, everyone I now know will be a corpse and all their achievements won’t matter.
As Ryan Holiday so poignantly put it:
“Do you think Alexander the Great knows that Alexandria still stands?”
So, there’s no reason to take ourselves and our work quite so seriously. Instead, let’s enjoy the ride.
By being here on this planet at this time, we have been given an amazing gift. In his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” Bill Bryson described the whole miracle of our existence on a few, incredibly powerful pages.
His breath-taking summary (from atoms to species on Earth) culminates in:
“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so.”
I don’t know about you but when I consider what had to happen for me to be here and write these lines, I feel like I have won the lottery a gazillion times over.
That’s not a personal achievement, that’s sheer, undeserved (but utterly welcome) luck. And the proper way to respond to an almost obscene level of luck is gratitude, not self-importance.
What to do: Set aside some time to reflect on the inevitability of your own death.
Now, this one is tricky. The reality is that our brain can’t fully process our own mortality. Research indicates that it categorizes death as something that only happens to other people. (In fact, my brain is doing that right now while I’m typing these words.) However, even just briefly considering our mortality immediately reduces our sense of self-importance and puts things into context.
Making our lives better doesn’t always require adding to it. Sometimes, it more about reducing or eliminating some things. In my personal experience, the list above is a great place to start.
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