Unless you’re convinced of the wisdom of doing less in today’s overbusy world — driving that point home is what Parts 1 and 2 were all about — significant resistance to actually going down this road will arise within. And, even with the knowledge of how thoroughly unhealthy America’s culture of overbusyness is, it still may not be easy to embrace suggestions for actually doing less, as you might have discovered while digesting the strategies and tactics outlined in Parts 3, 4, and 5.
This is because the way of doing less also forces you to confront your own preferences for, or addictions to, activities that may not be contributing to happiness in your life. Or in fact may be actively undermining it.
You may already know what some of these diversions are in your life but find yourself reluctant to give them up — a reluctance that might have been dredged up by the practical pointers covered in the previous three parts. Even the attitude itself of regarding activities detrimental to your deepest well-being as something to “give up” indicates an embedded or conditioned philosophy of always “wanting more.” Thus, if you do experience such reluctance, but still say you want to do less, then you have some internal psychological or spiritual “work” to do.
Successfully doing less and reaping the rewards of a more relaxed schedule requires that you take a psychological or spiritual journey (use whichever word you prefer). It’s a different kind of work than we’re used to doing for money or to keep our households running. Its entire makeup is different because it involves looking or feeling within rather than doing outwardly. In fact, the whole “way” of doing less embodies an internal shift to bring a better balance with outward doing by cultivating more looking, listening, and feeling. Not only within yourself but when it comes to the world around you.
The particular psychological or spiritual “path” that’s best is everyone’s own personal decision, of course — but in the context of doing less, it isn’t optional. It’s an integral part of the way of doing less. That’s because, in truth, doing less isn’t so much about doing less as an absolute, which it isn’t, as it is a question of finding balance. In the typical American life, doing less is sorely needed, but that isn’t to suggest one should go to the other extreme of doing nothing.
In fact, it’s helpful to consider here that American culture almost by its nature contains the seeds of extremism in many of the details of its worldview. We tend to be an “either/or” society that believes someone is going to either heaven or hell, that as a country the economic alternatives are either economic growth or collapse (forgetting that a steady-state economy is also a possibility), which is itself a disguised version of Western religion’s paradigm offering only the alternatives of a religious millennium vs. Armageddon. We are Republicans or Democrats, with third parties consigned mostly to irrelevance. A person is either hard-working or lazy, smart or stupid, left-brained or right-brained, intellectual or not, successful or not, and so on.
Taking the approach of doing less also requires patience — itself another facet of looking, listening, and feeling as opposed to doing. You may well get pushback from the people around you in your life. Beyond that, the “ethic” of the larger culture and advertising of “keeping up with the Joneses” is set against it. There is a constant barrage of propaganda from TV, radio, news sources, talk shows, social media, ad infinitum, of the desirability of getting more things, a better car, better clothes, a bigger house. To participate in the larger culture of wanting more, working harder to get it, or of consuming the best specially packaged “experiences,” and being disappointed if you do not measure up to that standard.
Against this tide, you will have to stand your ground if it doesn’t cost you your job or relationship. And if it might? Perhaps you may need to seek out a different job and relationship(s) in aligning the rest of your life with what is truly important.
Going in a different direction means having confidence and being steadfast. And also not arguing too much. Be content simply setting an example instead. Maybe you’ll even end up inspiring a few of those around you. Maybe not. But you don’t have to drink the well water.
A shift in consciousness
Doing less requires above all else what used to be called in the 1960s and ’70s a “change of consciousness.” Hand in hand with this comes a change in values. You must value doing less enough that you are willing to shift your behavioral habits.
But it can sometimes also work the other way around: If you experiment with changing your habits in the ways we outlined in Parts 3, 4, and 5, the very doing of it may lead to a change in your values and your consciousness.
Putting work in its place: Does — should — your job define you?
Most Americans tend to define themselves by their work, which is foolish in my opinion. This leads to all sorts of mischief. First, it makes us feel like we have to be doing something all the time to feel worthy. But you are already worthy because of who or what you are: a living creature, blessed with the gift of awareness to appreciate all that is around you.
Part of the problem, then, is defining ourselves by our work and believing we have to accomplish things to be worthy. No. You are more than that. You express what you already are through your work and activity, but those do not define you. You can also take time out and just be who you are before any and all of that.
Feeling one has to work to be worthy just feeds a needless anxiety, and leads to an overbusy life that is self-defeating in terms of being happy. Happiness is recognizing what you already are, and making room in your life for it to express itself naturally without added effort or “make-work.” Which is to say that, again, a lot of what we’re talking about here is as much psychological or spiritual in nature as it is practical.
It’s what I would call a simple “Psychology or Spirituality 101,” before ever getting to the types of questions that traditional religions typically address. And most Americans are flunking this most basic of introductory-level courses. Our psychological or spiritual inadequacies are not just a personal matter. Their consequences are far-reaching, and have led to destroying the world around us by flailing about wasting resources with all our overactivity that in the end does little to make us truly happy.
Today’s world is so topsy-turvy with respect to what is normal or not that I would argue it is not laziness that is the problem, but overambition.
It’s natural to work hard when you’re doing something you enjoy, but at the same time, you need downtime. There needs to be a rhythm. If you feel you must work hard all the time, you are operating under the shadow of “should” or guilt.
It’s a good thing to love what you do and be highly skilled and accomplished at it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t define you. That’s exactly backward. You define and shape your work by who you are to begin with.
Who are you, prior to the roles you play?
To be able to do less requires being able to enjoy just being. You can’t do this if you define yourself by your activity, i.e., your work or job. You are more than what you do, and at the same time less. That is, what you are is more profoundly simple, deep, and fundamental.
If you define yourself by your work, then you’re going to be in trouble if or when you retire. You will feel lost, and this is why so many men who retire just vegetate afterward and shrivel up or die. Even hobbies may not be enough if you have too strongly identified with your occupation.
Learning to accept yourself as you are before what you do may take spiritual work. That part is up to you, but it should be mentioned that if your religious beliefs make you feel guilty if you don’t work extra-hard, then they deserve to be strongly questioned. Or your interpretation of them does.
Learning to enjoy just being
It may sound obvious, but to do less, again, you have to enjoy it. It helps to take some time each day to just sit quietly, say 15 to 20 minutes as a start. Or take a walk by yourself, and just “be” while walking. No need to meditate or pray, just listen. This very simple act — or lack of acting, perhaps — takes the lid off so that your conditioning will bubble up — that internal “push” you feel to do something. Let it come up, acknowledge it, steep in it, let it pass away if you don’t want it, and its potency will begin to defuse and lose power over you.
This process takes time, of course. Perhaps a lot of time. But this kind of time, really, is just what you’re looking for by doing less, isn’t it?
Doing less turns out to be much more than just some abstract idea of doing less. And while it is very much about changing behavior patterns, for that to happen you must also examine the mental patterns that may be pushing you into doing things that feel “out of your control.” But they feel that way only because you have not yet brought these mental patterns into consciousness where you have the choice, after acknowledging and becoming more familiar with them, to then go beyond them.
When you do, you will find some of the overbusyness is obsessive-compulsive behavior. People just can’t be with themselves in a relaxed, patient way because they have been so heavily trained not to.
There can be a tendency to fill up any spare time you gain with things done just from nervous activity, and that are meaningless or themselves waste time. Ask retirees who suddenly have more time on their hands, yet find themselves “busier than ever” when they may not want to be. (This seems to be another common behavior pattern of retirees, in contrast with those who become a shell of themselves when they no longer have a job to do.)
All of this “filling up spare time” takes place because there is a momentum to previous habits and “spinning your wheels” doing things that are not really satisfying, yet we do out of boredom.
Here is the antidote: Simply begin to slow down, stop, and listen. Learn how to take an attitude of listening to almost anything: the birds and other animals outside, the wind in the trees, the hum of a fan or the refrigerator kicking on, the sweet feel of your breath coming in, your chest expanding, then falling further into relaxation as the breath goes out.
We can listen to the inner dialogue in the same way. And when you give it space to be heard? No one can provide easy answers here, because this is something everyone has to work out for themselves. But I think you will find if you listen, it leads to a place that may surprise you.
The prison of conformism and conditioning
In summary, to do less, one has to overcome the conditioning drummed into us by others: society, religion, Mom and Dad, school, workplace, TV, news, social media, advertising, etc.
Another way of getting at conditioning within ourselves is to ask: What is a “conformist”? Among other things, a conformist typically doesn’t even realize they’re driven to conform and do what the crowd is doing. (Something that, in this context, once you begin waking up to it, takes up time that doesn’t feel “yours” anymore.) It is more unconscious than that, driven by unexamined needs for fitting in, status, etc. Translation: Getting beyond the prison of conformity takes a certain amount of what could be called inner courage, gumption, the willingness to be different and stand on your own two feet mentally, so to speak, and not give away your confidence to the approval of others.
How do you begin going beyond this traditional conditioning? Not subjecting yourself to the indoctrination tools of the larger culture is half the battle. As mentioned in Part 3, things like watching only very minimal TV will help “unplug” you from one of the prime sources of society’s rituals that “keep you in the fold.” Same thing for social media. Paving the way toward doing less takes a certain amount of discipline in handling technology so it doesn’t take over your life.
And if the result is that you feel bereft, forlorn? You well may, for a time. Keep at it, though, and you’ll realize it’s but a temporary transitional phase back to sanity and true normalcy. And don’t forget: Beyond TV and social media — if your current or former friends will not follow you — you can always make new friends who have become similarly fed up living inside the prison walls and embraced another life outside them.
Disengaging from the prison of TV and social media can be good in another way because the path of doing less also requires its own focus. Today’s world offers so many distractions to suck up and deplete your time and motivation. If you just go along with everyone else, you’ll acquiesce and get dragged into too many things that will drain your energy, eat your time, and you’ll be right back where you started.
To feel good about doing less without guilt about it, therefore, takes a full-frontal questioning of all the assumptions and heavy conditioning about the inherent value of work as an end in itself, the Puritan work ethic, and the guilt drummed into us daily if we dare not subscribe to that.
Be the change you want to see in the world
Doing less is something you can implement to enrich your life with more time for contemplation, relaxation, the activities you truly love, and real face-to-face time with friends and family. At the same time, it withdraws support from the current powers that be where it makes the most difference: taking back money and attention from the very activities and products causing our world to spin further and further out of control. Not just on a political level but from the rapacious corporate business world as well.
If you feel powerless or are not politically inclined — even and especially if you are — withdrawing attention from the “three-ring circus” consensus reality and refusing to participlate in its shallow emptiness is one of the most effective things one can do to undermine the mindset of “business as usual.” The same business as usual that keeps us all chained to the treadmill of working only to consume so that we have to work even more, and destroy ever more of the natural world that ultimately supports us.
Contrary to the many cries to “do something,” the crying need today is not to do so many things — the sheer volume of everything we do — that in sum total is causing our world to fall apart. Instead, it is doing less of it that will make the world a better place. In the words of ecological economist Herman Daly, so-called economic growth has now become uneconomic growth by progressively reducing our collective quality of life with the side-effects of that growth, both measured and unmeasurable.
What is needed more than ever, both on the individual and collective levels, is reducing all of our economic wheel-spinning that only further ravages the planet. And to let go of our addiction to overbusyness that chains us to a soul-grinding treadmill, and crowds out time for relaxation, exercise, and proper self-care, thereby making us ever sicker and sicker the more things we computerize and automate and decouple from the physical world around us, thus estranging and anesthetizing us from the effects on it.
The most convincing way to inspire others to consider doing so as well is simply to set your own quiet example. Actions speak louder than words. The ripple effect to others begins in your own life, and spreads out from there. What we can accomplish is limited if we don’t start with ourselves.
What the world needs today is the opposite of what we are typically taught. Don’t do more, if “more” means simply feeding the beast our society has let loose and that has long since turned against us. Do less.
Withdraw your support from our out-of-control society by not partaking in its rituals of overwork, overconsumption, overbusyness, overextendedness, and overambition. For most of us, our part in “saving the world” will not happen through heroic acts, but by our daily commitment on the individual level to the “logic of less” in a world killing itself by gorging on all levels with too much of too much.
The insanity and unhealthiness of our world is a direct reflection of our own. We are the unhealthiness and insanity we see around us. We cannot change the world in any other way than by changing ourselves.
Lasting change of any kind usually takes considerable time. The changes are small at first, and occur incrementally. But over time, they begin to add up.
Change at the world level won’t happen quickly even in the best of circumstances, especially since we are a civilization in the early stages of decline. The road ahead, as has been the case for most civilizations on the downslope, will likely take a long time to fully wend its way to the lowlands before we find our feet on another road to someplace new. But the journey must start somewhere. Given how thoroughly we have become swallowed up in the belly of the beast, the sooner the better.
The time is now, and it begins with us.
Be the change you wish to see — in your own life and in the world around you.
Do less. And be more.