Accomplish More by Doing Less

by Joe Plemon on November 19, 2010

OK Joe”, you say, rolling your eyes, “this is starting out like a cheesy infomercial.  Exactly what are you pushing?”

I am glad you asked.  Accomplishing more by doing less is indeed counter-intuitive to the way we think.  Doing more, we reason, always equates to accomplishing more.  But does it?

How would you answer this question, “Where are you and what are you doing when you get your best ideas?”

Don’t keep reading…answer the question.

OK.  If you didn’t answer that one right away, try this one: “Do you get your best ideas by virtue of being busy, busy, busy or when you are relaxed and disengaged from lots of activity?

Some Answers

Career Coach Dan Miller has asked hundreds of his clients that very question over the past twenty years, discovering the most frequent answers to be, “when I was in the shower,” “when I was walking on the beach,” “when I was reading a book,” “when I was on the treadmill,” or “when I was relaxing in the bathtub”.   Miller says that he seldom finds anyone who gets great ideas when they are fully immersed in their work.

Why does it work that way?

In some ways, our minds will automatically venture outside our predetermined agenda if we will just relax and (to quote the Beatles), “let it be.” I would guess that you have experienced the frustration of not being able to remember a person’s name only to discover that the name comes to you when you quit trying so hard.   Resting, listening to great music or  taking a walk will get us out of our work mode in order to allow our brains to soar and bring us great innovative ideas.  I have many times awakened at 3:00 AM with the solution to a problem I have been struggling with…and I bet you have too.  It seems like my brain just needed time to process the problem without me cluttering it up with my daily activities.

The Sabbath principle at work

We shouldn’t be surprised that resting also restores. God made us that way, even commanding that we rest every seventh day (Exodus 20:8-11).  I once read about two families heading west with their covered wagons.  Neither family wanted the trip to last any longer than it absolutely had to, but one family decided ahead of time to not travel one day out of every seven.  The other family scoffed, saying, “You go ahead and stop if you want, but we are not going to waste a minute of our precious time.  We will arrive first, get the best claim, and laugh when you show up.”  You are probably ahead of me by now, but the family who rested every seventh day easily arrived before the other family.  They needed that time for refreshment.  The animals needed that day for restoration.  After resting, they were always able to start out fresh and re-invigorated.  The family who didn’t rest had breakdowns with their wagon; their horses were worn out and the family members susceptible to sickness.

Leonardo Da Vinci and The Last Supper

When Da Vinci was working on his masterpiece painting of The Last Supper, he would work in a flurry for several days straight, and then, without warning, would break for a day or two.  The duke who had contracted Da Vinci’s services was not pleased, stating that Leonardo should “never lay down his brush.”  But Da Vinci swayed the duke with these words, “The greater geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”

Trying the Sabbath principle every day.

Some live for the weekend.  Some plan their entire year around their two week vacation.  Certainly weekend refreshment and a planned vacation are great ways to incorporate the Sabbath principle into your life, but why not take it the next step and go for it daily?

Small breaks throughout the day (not getting caught up on the extra ten emails you owe or squeezing in one more report) will keep your creative juices flowing each and every day.  I recently read that the average businessman experiences 170 interactions per day (phone calls, emails, face-to-face conversations) and has a backlog of 200 to 300 hours of uncompleted work.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, your best time use for a 15 minute break could be sitting quietly on an outdoor bench or taking a short walk or even (one of my favorites) taking a power nap.

Challenge

Here is my challenge:  be intentional and creative about “planned refreshment” several times each day.  The idea is to actually relax, get your mind off your daily routine and allow the restoration to happen.  For the numbers geeks among us (that includes me), try this fun 24-hr Time Clock that will show you how you are using your 24 hours in a typical day.  If you discover that all 24 hours are full of work and other responsibilities, you will need to carve out your own time for relaxation and creative rest.  Do it.

You will discover that you really can accomplish more by doing less.

Readers: when do YOU get your most creative ideas?  Do you already carve out times of rest in your busy day?  How?  Are you planning to take the challenge?

Note: This post is a revision of one I had previously written for Christian PF.
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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ramona November 19, 2010 at 7:47 am

When trying to work more, it’s true that we lose perspective and can also burn out. Last year I’d do this. I’ve worked for 16 hours a day for 3 months. It was horrible. I’d sleep, eat, work, eat, shower, work, work. Then we left the country for 6 months and stayed in NYC. I was forced to work just a little and try to make it really lucrative, since we were doing a lot of sightseeing too. It was super, because I started looking at things from a different way. I am back home and, even if I actually work less (less work hours) I do accomplish more. I have a lot of ideas and am more relaxed.

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Tim @ Faith and Finance November 19, 2010 at 8:29 am

I usually get good ideas when I’m driving or reading. Sometimes ideas come when I’m about to go to bed. If I have a good idea, I’ll try to write it down or put it in my phone so I can finish what I’m doing and not feel like I’m losing out on the idea.

Good article – for me, taking a break usually leads to better ideas. Sometimes I forget that, so your article was a great reminder for me to take time to relax!

Tim

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Jason @ Redeeming Riches November 19, 2010 at 8:41 am

Great post! I need to constantly remind myself of the Sabbath Rest! Unfortunately, I don’t always take it!

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joeplemon November 19, 2010 at 9:50 am

@Romona,
Wow. 16 hours a day for three months is a grind! I have a friend who, for years, has worked one full time job (evenings) and either one or two part time jobs during the day time. I know it wears on him, but it is difficult to know how much because he won’t do as you did and take a break. I am glad that you are able to work less hours, be more relaxed and more creative.

@Tim,
As I alluded to in the post, I sometimes wake up at 3 AM (why 3 AM? … who knows?) with an idea or a solution to a problem I have been struggling with. When I force myself to get out of bed and write it down, I am usually glad I did.

@Jason,
Thanks. I too need to remind myself of the Sabbath Rest. But, because God tells me to take that rest, I no longer feel guilty about taking power naps! 🙂

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retirebyforty November 19, 2010 at 11:05 am

I schedule a hour during lunch break to go to the gym and move around a little. I work in a cubicle and this break is absolutely essential to me. The break gives my mind a rest and helps me keep my weight stable. I don’t know why more people don’t do this.

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joeplemon November 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm

retirebyforty,
Exactly. The phrase “break” infers doing something different during that time interval. Good for you: going to the gym is a great way to, as you say, give your mind a rest and keep your weight stable.
Why more people don’t do this? Good question. Let me know if you find an answer.

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Steven and Debra November 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Wise words, Joe. Far too many of us find ourselves in the situation where we are too busy sawing wood to take time out to sharpen the saw. A sharp saw bites into the wood and gets far more traction than a dull one.

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joeplemon November 19, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Steven and Debra,
Great analogy. I can just picture a woodsman slaving away with a dull saw, not taking time to sharpen it because he has “too much work to do”. We are the same way when we have so much work that we don’t take time away so our minds can be refreshed (sharpened).

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Everyday Tips November 20, 2010 at 9:01 am

My best thinking is done when I am in the shower, drying my hair, and walking on the treadmill. It seems like if I ever schedule ‘creative’ time, like writing, nothing comes to me. When inspiration strikes, I drop everything and start writing like a crazy person.

For work, I have learned that I have to walk away if I am stumped on something. I am a computer programmer by trade, and sometimes a bug just stares right at me, and I cannot see it to save my life. However, after a little rest, the answer usually jumps right out at me. (Hopefully!) Taking the break may seem like the wrong thing to do when in a time crunch, but I totally see the value as I have lived it myself countless times.

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joeplemon November 20, 2010 at 9:52 am

Kris,
“Creativity” seems to be an enigma doesn’t it? It alludes us when we try to get it, but sneaks up on us when we least expect it. I appreciate the fact that you recognize these traits and “drop everything and write like a crazy person” when inspiration knocks.

My problem is that I am a fairly structured person, allocating certain time blocks for writing. When I am not inspired, I usually plow right in anyway, with mediocre results. The good thing is that when I let this mediocre rough draft sit, I often discover some creativity when I try again (or, more common, BEFORE I try again).

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Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer November 21, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Too many managers forget to spend time just thinking. They’re too busy doing tasks instead of doing what will get you noticed by senior management.

P.S. I get my best ideas in the shower or while driving.

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