Less is Better – A Powerful way of Being Intelligent

Do More, Speak Less road sign with sun background

We sometimes hear the phrase “less is more”, and we probably know what it means. In fact, less is not more. More is more! However, less is often better. This is very significant, because we in live in times when many people believe that “more is better”, a belief that is probably at the root of many of the big problems of our time. It is a belief that can be seen everywhere, every day. At the national level, it is reflected in the overwhelming importance given to perpetual economic growth, which is based on the very questionable belief that having more money and things will make society better. At the business level, it can be seen in the primacy of profit, often at the expense of people and the planet, and in the imperative for businesses to keep getting bigger. And at the individual level, many people believe that having more money and things will make them happier. It may do for a while, but not for long.

The world is getting faster, fuller, and more pressing. It is getting faster in terms of the pace of life, the speed of transport, the speed of communications and the speed of change. It is getting fuller in the sense that there are more things than ever before, and more knowledge, and more activities, as well as more of us. And it is getting more pressing in the sense that there are ever increasing pressures on us to work harder, to spend more, to be constantly active, to be even more competitive, and to be glued to technology. It is hardly surprising that “more is better” rules our lives in so many ways. However, I am not saying that “more is better” is always wrong. There are occasions when more is indeed better, especially when people do not even have the basics of life, or when more really does need to be said. And it is clear that we need more of the truly good things of life, such as peace, truth, courage, wisdom, and love. On balance, however, I believe that we do too many of the wrong things and not enough of the right things. This does not mean that I am advocating that we lurch from one extreme to the other. But I do believe we have to find a balance between too much and too little.

Many of us spend time thinking about, and trying to do something about the big problems of our time. We do this by giving to charity, by getting involved in a campaign, or by altering our lifestyle in ways that we think will help. Whatever we do, we are concerned about the familiar litany of problems, which are evident in the media every day, as well as in the world we see around us. I believe that these can be summarised as follows:

The natural environment is in serious decline

The climate is changing, probably to a dangerous extent

Inequality within and between nations are grotesque and unsustainable

Democracy is in decline, as big money co-opts politics and government for its own ends

Military spending and activity is absurdly high, despite the fact that we are exactly hundred years on from the “war to end all wars”

Mental and emotional illnesses are at record levels

Corruption is endemic, and trust in business and government is at an all-time low

Crises have become the norm, rather than the exception

I believe that all these problems can be traced back, one way or another, to the effects of the belief that “more is better”. I am not saying that this is the only cause, but I do believe that the following is true:

All the planet’s life support systems are in decline, i.e. clean air, clean water, forests, topsoil, aquifers, fisheries, wetlands, and biodiversity. This is because we overuse and abuse them. We do this because we want too much and do too much. The climate is changing dangerously for precisely the same reasons.

Inequality is high and rising, because a “more is better” society creates a few big winners and a very large number of losers

Democracy is in decline because these big winners use their money to control politicians and policy

Wars are raging on three continents, because a “more is better” culture causes us to compete, often violently, for scarce resources

Mental and emotional illnesses are at record highs, not least because people are under immense pressure to work longer and harder, and to spend more and more, and because they feel there is no real meaning to this

Corruption and dishonesty are widespread because many people want even more than they already have, and think they can do this by cutting corners and bending the rules in their favour

Crises have become the norm, because the prevalence of the belief that “more is better” has caused major systemic failures in our socio-economic institutions – economics, finance, business, government, health, and education

This state of affairs is clearly unsustainable. Something big needs to change. If the belief that “more is better” is at the root of these problems, or at least a main cause, then it is time to replace that belief with something very different. I believe that we should replace it with its opposite – “less is better”. Just try to imagine how your life would be if the following were true:

You do less, but you live better. You feel less rushed, more alive, and more engaged. You are a human being, rather than a human doing

You say less, but you communicate better. You speak less often and you use fewer, simpler words, yet you are able to connect effectively with people. This may mean that have fewer “friends”, but at least they will be real friends

You have less, but you enjoy more – because you focus on the quality of things and experiences, rather than the quantity

You rush less, but make better progress. All of us can think of examples when we are in a great hurry, but this seems to get us there no faster

You make less effort, but get better results. By easing up, you bring into play the Law of Reverse Effort, which I will explain shortly

You control less, and allow things to happen more naturally. This often makes things easier and more successful

I would like to say a few words about each of these themes.

Doing Less is Better

It is quite common these days to see someone walking with ski-poles, listening to an iPod, with a dog on the end of a lead. It is equally common to come across someone drinking coffee, with her laptop open, speaking on her mobile phone, while having a conversation with someone across from her. Some people call this “multi-tasking”. I prefer to think of it as “doing too much”. It was not always like this. For example, there was a time when children had a childhood. Today, large numbers of them have what could best be described as a systematic preparation to do well in the world of work. Children are ferried short distances to school, often in oversized vehicles, when they could easily have walked or taken a bus. Then they are collected after school and whisked away to what could be the first of several extra-curricular activities, many of which are designed to increase the child’s chances of getting a “good job”, which means one with a lot of money attached to it. Their childhood has been taken from them, and this sometimes shows later in life as anti-social behaviour.

When I was a child, in the 1950s, we were told that life would be much easier in the future. We would have more free time. We would work far fewer hours. And life would be much less stressful. The opposite has happened. I look around me and see signs of stress everywhere, and I see people working longer and harder than ever. There are many reasons why we do too much. Here are some of them:

Social pressures – we feel that we should be doing all kinds of things for our children. And we also feel that, in order to “get on in life”, we need to work long and hard

Work pressures – your colleagues do it, therefore so should you. And “doing” gives the impression that you are working. It has to be significant that sitting quietly, thinking clearly, is not regarded as real work, even though it may often be the most useful thing you could do

Virtue – being busy is regarded as a virtue. Listen to the tone of voice of someone who says “I’m really busy these days” or “I work 12 hours a day”.

Wasting time – life is short, so we have to make the most of it. And that means doing as much as possible. Of course, there many things we could do, such as climbing Mount Everest, but we would end up drained and exhausted, burned out before our time

Anxiety – being busy is a common way of trying to keep anxiety and unhappiness at bay. It may help for a while, but it does not work in the long term

The fact is that by doing less, you can often be more effective and achieve more. For example:

Better thinking – the mind is a great tool, but it is only a tool. When we think too much, it creates needless complexity. Paradoxically, when we think less, we usually understand more clearly and are able to act more effectively

Good teaching – the best teachers seem to do very little. They have the wisdom to give their students as much space and freedom as possible. This is equally true of good therapists and advisors

Say Less, Communicate Better

Just to remind you, the key is to find a balance between too much and too little. There are clearly some situations where saying more is the right thing to do, as for example when you have a lot of things bottled up inside you that need to be expressed, or when you really need to explain something fully.

We have never had so many opportunities to communicate. You probably have a mobile phone, a laptop or tablet, and one or more email accounts. You may be in habit of using Skype. Perhaps you also have a website or a blog, not to mention your presence on Facebook and Twitter. You can communicate all day, to virtually anyone, anywhere. As if this were not enough, you have access to thousands of TV channels and newspapers. We are undoubtedly communicating more. But are we communicating better? Are we getting through to people clearly and effectively? I very much doubt it.

Meetings – many meetings are unnecessary, and many are too long. Some people speak too much, others speak too little, while some speak only because they feel they have to. We would all benefit from fewer, shorter meetings

Reports – they are often too long and badly written. Many take 20 pages to say what could be better said in two. Some reports are simply unnecessary

Emails – they too are often too long, and badly written. It could be because people do not really know what they want to say. It could be because they are in too much of a rush. Or perhaps it is just because they no longer care about the quality of their writing

What we say and how we say it can determine the success or failure of the important things in our life – our relationships, our wellbeing, our work, and our finances. It is not the quantity of communication that matters, but the quality. So why do we say so much? As always, there are several reasons.

Uncomfortable with silence – in a busy, noisy world, silence has become a rare luxury for many of us. Yet peace and quiet are surely necessary for good health and for a good quality of life. The problem is that so many of us are so accustomed to noise that silence makes us feel uncomfortable. So we may feel compelled to “fill the space” with sound, by speaking a lot or playing loud music.

Society values quantity – so we write long reports and give long presentations, when shorter would usually be better. As you know, consultants are often paid for the time spent on a project, rather than for the quality of the result. No guesses for what sometimes happens!

Anxiety – a common response to anxiety is to talk a lot. And we all know how irritating that can be

Pressures to speak – perhaps we feel we have to speak at a meeting, just to demonstrate that we are adding value, and thus earning our salary. Besides, there seems to be an unwritten rule that it is impolite to keep silent in the company of others. But why should we not able to enjoy silence together?

Many of us are nervous about speaking in public, particularly in front of a large audience, and very few people write well. We would all benefit from becoming better speakers and writers. People would pay more attention to what we have to say. We would be able to get what we want, quicker and more efficiently. And, not least, we would feel better, as our confidence in ourself rises.

My suggestions are:

Get into the habit of reading aloud from a book, very slowly and clearly.

Buy a good pen, and practise your handwriting. Try to write elegantly. It may seem strange to hear this, but doing this can eventually produce elegance inside you.


Have Less, Enjoy More

If everyone consumed as much as the typical American, we would need four planets to provide the space and resources to make this possible, perhaps even more than four when we factor in obesity! We clearly do not have four planets, so why do allow the human population to continue to grow so rapidly, and why do so many people continue to advocate perpetual economic growth, which means producing and consuming more and more?

The answer to these questions runs very deep, not least because the belief that we need perpetual economic growth has become almost religious, a self-evident truth, about which there must be no argument. People, like me, who argue against it are regarded as heretics. While it is true that there are still far too many people who do not even have the basic necessities of life, billions of people now have far more than they need, yet they want even more. “Affluenza” has become one of the epidemics of the modern world. It is has afflicted China in a big way, and this will probably end in tears.

For some people, more is never enough. It is interesting to reflect that one of the fastest growing industries, in the USA and elsewhere, is the self-storage industry. Although some people use self-storage units to keep things while they look for a new home, many use the facilities to store things because they have no more room at home. They have too much stuff. But this does not deter them. They continue to accumulate things, some of which they never use, and some they will never see again.

Having too much is not good for you, because it does not make you happy. It is not good for your pocket, and it is obviously not good for the planet. So why do we want so much and why do we keep on acquiring more when we already have too much? There are many reasons.

Availability – we do it because stuff is so available, in shops, on the internet, and in a variety of other ways, such as car-boot sales. We buy stuff that we do not need, and we buy it even when we cannot afford it, running up a lot of debt.  We are under constant pressure to buy

Cult of the new – I have lost count of the number of times a new iPhone has been launched, each time with a fanfare of publicity. If the previous model was so good, as is claimed each time by Apple, why replace it so soon? The fact is that people feel compelled to have the latest technology or the latest product, regardless of how well their current technology or product functions.

Anxiety – retail therapy, as it is often called, has become a huge phenomenon. People feel not the slightest tinge of embarrassment as they “shop until they drop”. I believe that much of this is caused by anxiety or insecurity. While the act of shopping makes people feel better for a short while, that feeling quickly wears off

Confusing needs with wants – we have some very basic needs, such as water, food and shelter, without which we will die. Beyond that, there are other needs that are not physically essential, but which are important emotionally. However, our needs are not the same as our wants, which can be defined as “It would be nice if I had it, but my world will not collapse if I don’t.” It seems that a lot of people today confuse needs with wants, and thus acquire too much

We live in a very materialistic world where consumerism is the new religion, shopping malls are the new cathedrals, and financial experts the new high priests. However, there is widespread awareness that this is unsustainable, and certainly not making us happy. The people of Bhutan are mostly Buddhists, so they are aware of the Second Noble Truth – attachment to desire is the root of all suffering. They know that the endless quest for more money and things (i.e. economic growth) is a collision course with disaster, which is why they have made happiness their national purpose. The have replaced Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness. Even the World Bank has taken an interest in this initiative. I hope that this is a sign of better things to come.

So what is the cure for “affluenza”. As with influenza, there is no simple cure. It is not easy to want less and have less. It takes courage and strength. My simple suggestion is that get rid of anything you do not really need.


Rush Less, Make Better Progress

Many things are much faster than they used to be. Travelling at 60mph in a car can seem quite slow these days, when it seemed quite fast fifty years ago, and you probably know that the Maglev train shoots people at 300mph from downtown Shanghai to the airport. Computers are changing so rapidly that today’s latest model will be obsolete this year. High-speed internet access has become the norm, and Google searches takes fractions of a second. Yet in a recent interview Eric Schmidt, their CEO, complained about the slow pace of searches. He claimed that we want our search results even faster (faster than a fraction of a second?)

Life is undoubtedly faster, but is it better because of this? You will not be surprised to hear that I have my doubts.

Stress – driving fast can be exhilarating, but it can be stressful too. It can cause accidents, use more fuel and, as the research keeps telling us, does not get us to our destination that much sooner

Health – eating quickly is bad for us, both physically and culturally. Yet fast food, rushed meals, “grazing”, “eating on the hoof”, drinking coffee while driving, have all become commonplace

Premature action – who among us has not felt the acute discomfort of sending an email or text in haste, or to the wrong person?

Bad decisions – decision-making, except in real emergencies, is best done slowly. Typically, we make bad decisions when we rush


You are not alone if you think that life has become too fast. There are many benefits from going slower, for example:

Enjoyment – the slower you go, the more you see. And the more you see, the more you enjoy. Just imagine travelling through the countryside on a motorway. And then imagine walking or cycling through it

Calm – we feel much calmer and more relaxed when we stop rushing

Communicating – when we speak slowly and clearly, people are much more likely to understand us and pay attention to us

Mistakes – you will probably make fewer mistakes if you do things more slowly


Try Less, Achieve More

There is a widespread belief that when we try harder and make more effort, we will be more successful. This takes many forms. In school reports, management appraisals, and in sport, we often encounter the words “good effort” or “must try harder”. People who work long and hard are highly valued by society and organisations, even when their work is of doubtful quality and efficacy. In addition, there is a belief that the mighty triumph. One need look no further than American foreign policy to doubt the wisdom of this belief. Yet the opposite is often true. Trying less, with less effort, often produces better results. Although this may seem counterintuitive, there are many examples of it in the natural and human worlds, when minimum input produces optimum output.  I call this the Law of Reverse Effort.  I would like to say a few words about it.

When I practised Judo at Leeds University in the early 1970s, I was regularly defeated by Kunimitsu, from Japan. We used to joke about it afterwards over a beer, but he was very serious when he said to me, “The only reason I win is because you try too hard. You put too much energy into trying. It is your trying that lets me to win.” I never forgot his words. When I thought about it later, I began to realise that when I tried too hard, things often went wrong. Conversely, when I eased off and allowed things to happen naturally, they usually went well.

I had another sobering example of the Law of Reverse Effort in 1987, when climbing Mont Blanc. My friend and I stayed overnight at 11,000 feet at the Refuge de Gouter. It was very busy because it was the last weekend of the summer season. Since we knew that climbers usually departed for the summit by 2-00am at the latest, we set out at midnight to avoid the crowds. For a while we were alone on the mountain, picking out a route by the light of our head-torches. It was not long, however, before we could see lines of lights coming up behind us, and they were getting closer. At the time I thought this was strange, because we were both fit and I felt that we were moving quickly. I was very surprised when the leading group eventually caught up with us. It turned out to be a guided party, led by a man from Chamonix who looked as if he was in his 70s. I never forgot his comment when I asked him how his group had managed to overtake us. He said, “You were probably going too fast”. I knew exactly what he meant. He had been doing the equivalent of good Judo on the mountain.

Control Less, Allow More

We live a huge paradox. On the one hand, we try to control more and more aspects of our lives, by trying to minimise risks and by trying to know in advance what will happen in the future. At the same time, more and more aspects of our lives are being controlled by others – CCTV cameras everywhere, laws and regulations covering everything, political correctness, and government surveillance of our emails and telephone calls. On the other hand, the world seems to be spinning out of control, with its endless round of crises and problems. It feels as if the more we try to control, the more we lose control. By why do we try to control so much. Here are some of the reasons.

We think we can control other people – we try to control how they vote, what they buy, what they believe, and how they behave. This works to some extent, mainly because we live in an era of mass culture, mass media, and mass marketing.  However, a lot of people are now very aware of this, and they are, in their many different ways, resisting attempts to be controlled

We think we can control nature – you will be able to think of many examples of this, such genetic engineering; pharmaceuticals; slimming pills; industrial farming; anti-ageing techniques, and so on. You will also be able to think of the problems this often causes

We think we can control danger – we have become very risk-averse in the last few decades. Significantly, there has been an immense growth in the “security” industry over the same period. This has been accompanied by an “equipment revolution”, in which every sport, indeed virtually every activity, has its own range of equipment. In my own sport, mountaineering, we used to go climbing in old clothes, cheap “commando boots”, and a rope if necessary. These days people are literally covered in expensive equipment, much of it unnecessary. I doubt that it makes the world any safer for them. The risk-aversion has become so extreme that, in one case, a school in England did not allow parents to attend their children’s sports days, in case any of them were paedophiles, Bizarre, but true! The fact is that “danger” is often in the mind. It is often just a projection of our fears.

We think we can predict the future – go to Google, type in “unsuccessful predictions”, and have some fun. The vast insurance industry is based on predictions. Business strategy is based on predictions. But life rarely works out the way we expect. As John Lennon said: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” The reality is that we can control the future as little as we can control the moon and stars

When Less Control is Better

Trusting – micromanaging is increasingly common. Managers do it in companies, and governments try to micromanage more and more aspects of our lives. We have reached the ludicrous pint where, if something is not prohibited, it is probably compulsory. When people are left to live and work without interference, they usually fare much better. Not only do they solve their problems in their own way, they also grow as people

I suspect we try to control because we are insecure and worry too much. Tibetans have a very sensible attitude towards worry. They say that if you can solve a problem, why worry about it. And that if you cannot solve a problem, then there is no point in worrying about it. Removing worry from your life frees up a huge amount of energy for you, and makes you much happier. But for many of us, worrying is the habit of a lifetime. So how do we break the habit? I suggest that you make two lists. The first list contains all your problems that you think you can do something about. The other is a list of the problems that you can do nothing about it. Now throw the second list away! Then look at the first list, choose one problem on it, and then do something about it right now. That immediate action may not be all you have to do, but at least you have set the process in motion. If you continue with this, addressing all the problems on the list, two things will happen: you will solve your problems; and you will feel much better. In fact, a third thing will probably happen too. When you worry less, you will feel less need to control. And when you stop trying to control, you are much more likely to be able to “flow” through life.


Less is not always better. More is clearly better when we need to do more or say more or have more, and when we need to go faster or try harder. That said, I believe that, much of the time, we should be doing less, saying less, having less, rushing less, trying less and controlling less. That would make all the difference to our lives, and to this planet.

by Chris Thomson

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