In Praise of Doing Less

Woman Relaxing in HammockFor Americans, who labor longer hours and take fewer days off compared to the Europeans and even the notoriously industrious Japanese, being busy counts as normalcy, while leisure time is considered a luxury most can ill afford.

Working Harder Does Not Make Us More Efficient

“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary,” the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi echoed this national sentiment. The notion that hard work is essential for getting ahead in life is so deeply ingrained in our culture that its validity is hardly ever questioned.

A rare and refreshing exception is Richard Koch, the bestselling author of “The 80/20 Principle – The Secret to Achieving More with Less” (Doubleday, 1998) and other follow-up versions.

As he freely admits, his insights in the importance of working smartly rather than intensely did not originate with him but were drawn from Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist and inventor of what is now known as the “Pareto Rule” or “Pareto Efficiency Concept.”

In essence, both Pareto and Koch suggest that relatively little effort (about 20 percent) produces the greatest amount of results (about 80 percent). For example, only a small number of human beings are responsible for most of the good and the bad that happens in the world every day. Individual innovators in technology change nearly single-handedly how we work and communicate with one another. A few dictators and terrorist leaders threaten the entire world through their violent acts time and again. The rest of us benefit or suffer from their actions but are not directly responsible for them.

Similarly, Koch says, things work in our personal lives. Only a handful of the choices we make and actions we take really make a difference. The rest is just routine, repetition, and triteness. But still, we remain convinced that almost all our efforts matter, and that the harder we try, the better the outcome will be.

Even most companies, and certainly most managers, focus too much on inputs rather than on outputs, despite the fact that the most meaningful results are usually achieved through relatively little action and energy expenditure, Koch says.

To apply these observations in everyday life, he recommends to his readers to take stock in how they conduct themselves at work, at home running their households, even at sports or play.

For instance, one of the “secrets” to working less while achieving more, he says, is to maintain open spaces that are uncluttered with daily chores. These are necessary for innovative and creative thinking, whether professionally or for personal purposes.

Second, there must be times and places where relaxation and literally doing nothing are allowed and appreciated as important elements of one’s productivity. We routinely underestimate the role downtime plays in our work habits, so much so that we almost have to force ourselves to take these constructive breaks, Koch laments.

The most highly effective people are not the one’s who are “married” to their jobs, but those who know when to disconnect. They are not necessarily available 24/7 via cell phone and email. They don’t easily permit interruptions of their workflow or leisurely activities. They focus on priorities and clearly set goals, while less urgent matters can be attended to in due time.

Critics may say that such freedoms are only afforded to those who are in leadership positions or work for themselves. That may be so, but the question arises, how did they get there? Could it be that they worked a little less frenzied and gave themselves more time to work a little smarter? Koch would agree to the latter.

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