Life is full of trade-offs. An example of this is the stack of books on my office desk. Apparently I have traded cleanliness for having my favorite books close at hand. But deep within the pages of this leaning tower I can hear the echo of three powerful words- “Less, But Better.”
Less but Better?
In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism, he writes about the power of less but better. At the beginning of this book he gives the story of a Silicon Valley executive, whose life and work quality were suffering as a result of saying yes to everyone and everything that came his way all in an effort to please people. He went to a mentor, who in turn told him to only do what he felt was important at work, and nothing else. Acting on this advice, he ended up with a new default response to almost everyone, and everything that came along- “No.” He even stopped joining weekly update calls and meetings, saying, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem like a good enough reason to attend.”1 By making this simple change and focusing on what was most important he improved his enjoyment and efficiency at work, gained the respect of his peers, and increased the time he could spend with his family.
I Just Can’t Decide
In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discuss the key elements of what makes ideas sticky. In the Chapter titled Simple, they mention the concept of Decision Paralysis, and that similar to how a message with too many points is hard to remember, sometimes having too many choices in life makes it harder for us to make a decision. So whether we are trying to order food at a new restaurant and the menu is massive, or you’re digging through your closet trying to decide what shirt to wear for that next special occasion, things get simplified when we prioritize what’s most important and then discard the rest. So, I say yes to the guacamole, and yes to shirt that makes me feel like a million bucks! Everything else is secondary.
If You Confuse Me I’m Outta Here!
This echoes Braun’s famous designer Dietar Ram’s principle on design, “That less is better- because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.2”
Cleanliness Leads to Clarity
Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo is the author of the #1 New York Times best selling book titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” In her book she stresses the importance of tidying up your home. But when asked why tidying up the home is so important she responds “basically, when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life, and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.3” And to do this successfully you must start by discarding, all at once, intensely, and completely p. 34. She says that if you try to tidy up your house without discarding things first, then it will naturally become cluttered again. And to help make this process easier, Marie has a filter, or a standard for what stays and what gets tossed. For her it’s the question, “Does it spark joy?”
I think all of us want to put our houses in order, to gain clarity, and to be free to make the best choices for ourselves and our family.
The Difficulty of Going Against the Flow
But it’s not always easy pursuing less. It takes a lot of work and patience to imagine the kind of lifestyle you want, to clarify your values and priorities, to decide what you’re not going to pursue, and then to consistently build with those ideals in mind. And it’s uncomfortable saying no to people we love and admire, or getting rid of things that are new or still have value in our eyes, or not going to activities and events that everyone else attends. It’s so much easier to get caught up in the current of what everyone around us is doing. It’s so easy to get distracted from the goals and dreams we have because of all the choices available.
It’s Time to Reflect
So what can we do about it? How can we overcome these difficulties? I think it all starts with a clear vision of where we want to go in life. And to get clarity we need to ask ourselves some basic questions:
- As a Christian, what are my top priorities?
- How can I faithfully steward each of these areas of my life?
- What things are keeping me from doing these things with excellence?
- Might I have a richer, fuller, and more meaningful life if I said “no” more often?
- What would happen if I got rid of things that weren’t all that important, things that added to the mess, things that created distraction and decision paralysis, and didn’t spark joy?
- Might I be better off if I stopped committing to things that I know I can’t finish well?
- What if I started focusing on fewer things that were more worthwhile- like family, like my relationship with God, like sleep and rest, and like adding time and flexibility to my schedule to allow for the unexpected surprises of life?
Once we have a clearer vision about the kind of life we want, then we need to add the important elements of time, effort, and perseverance. And like Marie Kondo we need to set up a filter for deciding what stays and what goes. This filter will be like a boundary which protects the solitude we are working to create.
Staying on the Straight and Narrow
For Christians, a pursuit of less is not about adopting some Zen or Buddhist ideal, about emptying ourselves to achieve piece and balance in life, or some alternative way to earn our salvation. It’s simply about making room for what’s best in life. Pursuing less should help us focus on what really matters in life, like our relationship with God, time with our family, loving our neighbor, and being faithful stewards of all the precious things God has put in our care.
Blaise Pascal once wrote- ‘I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.’ It seems that I have made this essay longer than usual because I have not the precision to make it any shorter.
But at least with this, and with the great mess of books that still sits on the desk in front of me, I have gained great clarity about one thing- I have a long way to go before I master the art of less but better.