Marc Lessers book “Doing Less” is a very tempting promise. It’s supposed to explain how to achieve more by doing less – but doing less does not mean to work less, it means to do less unnecessary things, to focus better and to care less for distractions, and to answer three important questions: What do you want? What do you have to do to get it? Can you pay the price for it?
Everybody needs to find his own way of focusing and concentrating. – Lesser is a Zen Priest, Zen Master, former Entrepreneur (a greeting cards and calendar company) and now executive coach (Zen Business Associates). Not surprisingly his recommendation mainly derive from years of Zen practice: Get back to the simple things, question who you are – and just start doing whatever you want to do. There is nothingh you have to wait for.
Lesser is not just preaching or recommending – he develops a clear program with five areas to focus on. The Less Manifesto treats fear, assumoptions, distraction, resistance and busyness as the main obstacles to productive work.
- Overcoming fears is mainly an issue of communication, imagination and a clear understanding of what is going on: Why are we afraid of meetings, presentations, or of addressing someeone with bad news? Whar are the consequences? And what are tre consequences of the consequences, what will “really” change for us? Is there anything we can know and plan, and is there anything that will really affect us?
- This often closely connected to the second issue: We have assumptions about what will happen, what others think, what others will do. What of this do we know and what do we imagine or interpret? If we wonder what someone really wants or needs from us – why don’t we just go and ask? – Because of some fears…?
- Resistance can be our own or that of others – or again just an assumption. Will colleagues really resist changes we suggested? Why do we resist talking to and meeting someone? Because we have some assumption? Because we are afraid – of being right with our assumptions?
- Distractions are a matter of organisation and concentration: One way to handle them is to collect and organize: Read email only once a day, answer the phone only at fixed times. Don’t let something grab your attention and take it away. If something is happening – have a look, and then go back. That sounds easy – but it is the goal of many old meditation practices.
- Busyness finally is the contrary of productivity: What keeps us busy prevents us from getting something done.
Along these five topics, Lesser demonstrates how to discover destructive elements in everybody’s workstyle. A frequent example: It feels easy and efficient to work harder, to stay in the office longer – but does it help? Does it change anything? Or does it just keep you busy? Does it take you somewhere else? Or does it just make you do more of the same?
We have to get along with ourselves – that the good news and the bad news at the same time: “You are perfect just the way you are – You could use a litte improvement” is one of the most impressive quotes of Shunryu Suzuki Marc Lesser build his book on.
Michael Hafner talked to Marc Lesser about this and other paradoxes, the limits of questioning and challenging and the difference between being focused and being an asshole.
themashazine: I think it’s very important to question assumptions – but when do you stop questioning? From a philosophical point of view, it does not stop with acknowledging that we have prejudices. Once you accept the limited, personal and dependent state of our views, where do you set the border, when do you
stop to question?
Lesser: In some way we are making assumptions much or all of the time. We have to.
Walking up the stairs, our bodies know exactly where to step, without having to look. We are brilliant at reading other’s energy and emotions. From seeing someone’s face or hearing their tone of voice, we make all kinds of
assumptions. Usually our assumptions are correct. However, often they are wrong.
We all have blind spots; we all have biases and prejudices. For most of us, we stop to question these assumptions when we are surprised; when a relationship goes badly, or when there is some kind of pain, difficulty, or
ineffectiveness in our work situation.
For example, when I was CEO of Brush Dance publishing company, I once hired some consultants to help with our marketing strategy. One day these consultants took me aside and asked if I was aware that my employees were
afraid to tell me the truth. I was shocked – “me, they are afraid to tell me the truth?” The assumption I had made about my leadership skills, my transparency and openness, the trust I had established, proved to be
So, if everything is going great for you; no need to question or challenge your assumptions. When there is a problem, when something is not going so well, a good place to begin is to look at the assumptions that you make
about yourself, about others, about the situation.
One way to begin to unearth our assumptions is to notice the feedback we are getting, or to ask for feedback – what could I do that might help this team work better? Or we might ask our partner, parents, or children – please
tell me, how might I love you better?
themashazine: Distraction – to me, a very effective way to handle distractions is to get things done immediately: That means either act – or delete. But I don’t want to keep in mind that I will have to read mail in the evening, that there will probably wait a lot of additional work for me. – So which part of your recommendations am I getting wrong?
Lesser: Your strategy is a good one for a variety of small, easy and quick to accomplish tasks. But what about larger projects that are ongoing over a period of months or sometimes even years? I can’t stop everything else I’m working on to write a book (as much as I might wish to.)
Many people have multiple projects (perhaps 3, or 10, or 100.), as well as variety of responsibilities to handle, track, and move forward. I was coaching a CEO today who oversees a company of more than 10,000 employees.
His list of regular reports, projects, and tasks was enormous. Yes, there are some things he could just do; other things he needs to delegate, and most of his responsibilities needed to be prioritized.
For this CEO, just doing whatever comes his way, would be an enormous problem; it would be as though he was distracted by handling the things that were coming his way, instead of doing what was most important.
A useful way to look at this is to aspire, and practice with working from the “inside out”, to be clear about your priorities and to not be distracted by outside events, as opposed to working from the “outside in” – someone who
is responding to the pulls around him or her – like email, phone calls, etc.
themashazine: Fear – could it also be a problem to have too little fear? I met many managers who learned to overcome their fears; they knew that business is mainly about starting things. Some were relaxed, hearty personalities, others were just detached – they had no fear, so they did not care – not about their fear, nor about the fears or resistance of others; they just acted. What’s going wrong, if having no fear turns into recklessness?
Lesser: Yes, it is possible to be fearless in a way that allows us to act in a way that is reckless or perhaps in a way that enables us to act without integrity or unethically. I think that our internal compass of right and wrong includes some form of fear. Fear of losing our reputation isn’t
necessarily a bad thing, unless we overdo it.
I say in the book Less, that fear is positive in many ways – it keeps us safe, keeps us alive in dangerous situations. The problem is when we are fearful in situations in which fear stops us from seeing clearly and from
acting with presence and composure. This is very different then not caring.
In your question, I see this kind of “not caring” as a mask for fear – it means we are so afraid that we turn away from ourselves. The challenge, I think, is to include all of our fears, all of our cares – and not be caught
or overwhelmed by them.
themashazine: Let’s assume I really, really want to achieve something, but it requires a lot work and will keep me from doing anything else. How do you determine whether to go for it or not; where do personal goals and desires end and where does busyness – in the sense you describe it – start?
Lesser: Anything that we want to achieve often requires a good deal of work, and means that we are deciding to not do something else in order to focus on the choice we have made. I’m reminded of one of my teachers, Harry Roberts, a Yurok trained Shaman, who often said that being a human being is easy; you just need to answer three question: 1) What do you want?; 2) What do you have to do to get it?; and 3) Can you pay the price. Harry would then laugh heartily, and say that most people never really bother to ask the first question.
In answer to this question, I believe that it is the question that is important. What do you want? Of course, answering this question is not easy. The answer changes; our priorities change; our circumstances change;
and we change. And yet, we need to come back to the question – What do you want?
I think that when we ask this question deeply, we tap into not only our personal goals and desires, but something even deeper and wider – asking what is needed; what is being requested; as well as what do you love doing,
or what are you called to do? In this way, work can have a mysterious and sacred element to it, help us to discover ourselves in new ways.
Busyness, as I use it in the book, generally has an avoidance quality to it. We are busy because we are avoiding difficulty, or pain, or anxiety. We are busy because we don’t want to be where we are, so we move quickly from one
thing to another, without every stopping, without ever asking questions such as – What do you want?
themashazine: And finally – if I’m doing what matters most, to me, now – what keeps me from being an asshole?
Lesser:Interesting question! One I have never been asked before. I like it.
I’m taking an improv class in which the first lesson is to learn to fail good-naturedly, even with pleasure and gusto. When we make a mistake, we throw our arms in the air and shout – “I failed!” So, I suppose what I’m
saying is, maybe it’s ok to be an asshole – to use this state of being as a time to question assumptions, and look at fears; a time to laugh at ourselves and to learn.
I know of no antidote or prescription to cure acting like an asshole – other than to help others, pay attention, to practice kindness and generosity. Please do what matters most, to you.