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Less is Sometimes Less

Recently I came upon a line of reasoning I have seen in the past. The reasoning goes like this: I feel overwhelmed, so therefor I will try to do less. This makes perfect sense, especially if you have had the experience where "less is more". When teaching, I would often utilize the less-is-more approach. I wanted my students to focus on the fundamentals and learn them better, and the positive results were certainly clear to me. How many kids get turned off to learning altogether when there is a ton of homework? In this case, less is often more as kids can stay engaged longer. I even had a talk with my boss several years ago where I explained I felt I was doing too much-spread too thin-and could not do anything high-quality. I needed to be doing less so I could do things better. Less was more in that case, too.

There is a caveat I have discovered to the less-is-more argument, and it has to do with the scores of kids I have met who want to take fewer classes in school, take a "gap year" between high school and college to "rest", have shorter work days, and the like. When internal motivation is low, and executive functioning skills are poor or underdeveloped, less usually turns out to truly be less (and definitely not better). Less-is-more is all about doing fewer things better, but the less-is-more approach to taking fewer classes or a shorter day often does not yield higher quality work. In fact, I have numerous experiences where a person who started doing less, continued to do less and less until they did nothing. Their lives certainly did not get better; in fact, they got worse.

When a person does less and ends up doing more, are they really doing less? Of course not. Successful less-is-more situations are actually about redirecting and focusing effort. In most cases, the effort remains the same, but what happens is there are a number of executive functioning skills that are utilized so that a person's efforts and motivation can be more optimally directed. That is how one gets more from seemingly doing less. When you do not plan, less-is-more tends to follow a second set of laws: Thermodynamics. When people start truly doing less, they eventually grind to a halt. It has nothing to do with morality or laziness, they are activating the law that says bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. At worst, I think these people are guilty of being naive.

Perhaps people who find themselves frustrated and overwhelmed should actually do more planning than "less". The act of planning actually has a strong track record of improving both well-being and productivity. Doing less, in my experience, has an abysmal record of generating well-being and productivity.

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