Why doing less is often more

Why doing less is often more

It’s been awhile since I sat down to write a new article. Most of what I have posted lately have been timely re-posts of “old” content (AR is less than 1 year old).

Now that my kids are in school, I *should* have all sorts of time on my hands. However, between picking up a consulting gig, and some work on another project that I hope to announce soon, I have managed to somehow, someway, end up working nearly full-time.

“Full-time” for me is not what you are thinking. It is 5 hours a day of work max. That is it. I won’t do a minute more. My “full-time” work is also only on things that I get real enjoyment out of – if it’s not a “Hell Yeah,” I am not doing it.

I work when I want to, on projects that I enjoy. And that won’t change.

You get the gist by now….I’ve been real “busy” working my maximum of 5 hours per day – I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.

Still, I have managed to pack in quite a bit and I am feeling a bit of stress.

But the reality is that I still have to work and make some money to hedge against sequence of return risk in my early retirement.

All of this work, new projects, and light stress reminds me that doing less is often more.

You don’t need to work 70 hour weeks to be happy

I had this post in mind this last night. Then, I wake up this morning and in my inbox was Apex Money from Jim Wang featuring these articles:

Both articles talk about the traps that many of us “successful” people get into by working hard and grinding for the sake of maximum achievement.

If you are pursuing money and achievement as many of us do on a daily basis, society and our organizations are pushing us to work longer hours than ever before.

Long hours are most common in managerial and professional occupations. This is something of a recent trend. In the old days, if you were a white-collar worker, the deal was that you worked as hard as you could at the start of your career to earn the right to be rewarded later on, with security of tenure and a series of increasingly senior positions. […] This is no longer true.

Laura Empson, Harvard Business Review

But let’s say that you do manage to extricate yourself from working long hours, or you have found ways to work smarter, like I did – you still may be actively pursuing achievement, money, and success.

No matter which group you are in, the work harder or work smarter camp, you likely share one thing in common. We are pursuing achievement to make up for our own insecurities.

My research, published in my new book about leadership in professional organizations, shows that our tendency to overwork and burn out is framed by a complex combination of factors involving our profession, our organization, and ourselves. At the heart of it is insecurity. 

Laura Empson, Harvard Business Review

So we have the long and short of it there. We try to cover our insecurities with external measures of accolades, a big impressive title, or the money – rather than working to find the inner calm that we desperately need.

It’s as if people have lived their lives so long for the external, they can no longer grasp what it means to live by the internal. 

My Quiet FI

After a year and some change of my Accidental Retirement, I can tell you that I have spent a lot more time exploring the internal and realizing that I didn’t need/want the money, the accolades, or even the title.

I just want to be happy in my everyday activities.

Quality Work > Quantity of Work

Still I never actually worked 50 hours a week, let alone 70!

I explored how to work less, take all the vacation you want, AND still be productive in this article.

I realized pretty early on – I’m not sure exactly when – but I always knew that I didn’t want to follow the path of the MOST resistance to get where we wanted to go.

In my first job out of college, I had been carpooling with a coworker who lived near me. I would work my 8 hours and then go down to the gym in our building and work out. Then I’d shower and meet my coworker for the ride back home. He worked at least an hour more than me each day. Still I received praise from the CEO and a raise.

That was when I realized that…

It’s not about the hours, it’s about the quality of the work.

Perhaps around that time, or shortly thereafter, I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. That book only further cemented the notion that there is something out of whack with our system.

Sure, our society does pay up big for those who work long hours at prestigious law firms, or long hours at the C-level of public companies, or Doctors who have to study their ass off for years. We sure do pay up.

But we also pay up for creativity and for simply doing a great job.

Long hours doesn’t equal 100% effort

To be truly productive in life, you want to focus on getting the right things done, at the right time. Or as Gary Keller says,

What’s the ONE Thing I can do / such that by doing it / everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Gary Keller, The One Thing

This is what working smarter is all about. It is about producing the best results with a limited expenditure of time.

++AR Resource to Manage Time: The Time Log Spreadsheet: become more effective by tracking, optimizing, and focusing your time++

Hugh Jackman and the 85% Rule

It is a great irony of life, that it seems that giving less effort actually yields the same or better results.

I’ve not only seen this first hand in my own work, but also in others.

Even as a CEO, I worked 40 hours or less, but yet I knew more than anyone in the company about almost any of our products, people, strategy, or results.

And again this summer, I saw the beauty of working less, but producing more on this site. I wanted to continue to write, but with my kids both home from school, I knew that my time would be much more limited.

Even so, I churned out many more posts this summer, started the FIRE Insights Survey, and was as productive as when my kids were in school!


I put in less time, but the time that I did put in was solely focused on writing. That is it. I didn’t tinker with anything else, I wrote and I wrote. No fluff or time wasting activities.

And, this isn’t just from me.

In an interview on the Tim Ferriss Show, Hugh Jackman tells of the 85% rule:

If you tell most, sort of, A-type athletes to run at their 85 percent capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run 100 because it’s more about relaxation and form and optimizing the muscles in the right way

Hugh Jackman

Moreover, this is is also being backed up by a scientific study and fitness coaches, not just Hugh Jackman.

In fact, extra time actually can be a hindrance, just the same as 100 percent physical performance is more than “giving it your all.”

A true “100 percent performance” is not just a complete physical effort. In order for us to maximize our abilities, we must also be in an optimal mental state.

Dr. Stan Beecham

Derek Sivers, author of Anything You Want (one of my favorite books) and coiner of the term “Hell Yeah! or no.” writes about his experiences with the 85% rule in his article Relax for the same result.

Which then makes me realize that half of my effort wasn’t effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best.

Derek Sivers, Relax for the same result

Derek is right. We put so much stress on ourselves to do our best, to work long hours, to work ourselves to the bone.

But what is it actually accomplishing? Not much.

So it appears that by giving only 85% of our effort, we are actually working to reach a state of 100% productivity.

Physically or mentally this rings true.

Employing the 85% rule in your entire life:

There are so many examples where giving 85% percent will end up being more effective:

  1. Work: I’ve made the argument against long hours. Whether you believe it or not, the only way to find out is to employ this first hand.
  2. Investing: The simplest investments are the best investments. That is why I invest in Total Market Index Funds. A three-fund portfolio is literally all you need to be successful. You’ll beat active traders – all day, every day.
  3. Business Strategy: Diversification is good, but the more products and services you try to pull off at same time, the less effective you’ll be. Unless you are Google or Amazon or Facebook, less is more.
  4. Relationships: We pack our lives with busyness, vacations, family dinners, activities, excursions, etc. But what we want most is to connect with people on a deeper level and for that we need to be less busy, and spend more 1:1 time together.
  5. Vacations: Traveling to 10 places in 10 days sure sounds fun, but in the end you didn’t get to really explore or enjoy and one place the way it deserves to be explored. Even on vacation, less is more!
  6. Diets: You can go on a diet to maximize results, but what you really need to be doing is building a system that works for the rest of your life. You’ll never see me doing a juice cleanse or fasting. I want less rules that I can actually stick to.

What else did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

The bottom line, is that there are so many instances in life, where giving less effort will yield better results. What I have listed above is merely a drop in the bucket.

Are we hiding from life with more?

In our effort to do more, be more, achieve more, we fill up our non-working hours at home with things to fill the void.

I know that I am guilty of that. I have so many hobbies that sometimes I am not sure I am sitting still.

This stems from my own insecurities. From the insecurity of sitting with myself.

I’ve started to try to unpack all of it.

I journal.

I try to be mindful.

And while I don’t yet have a stable and consistent meditation practice, I try to breathe when I can, and just sit and be in rare quiet moments.

Mostly, I just try to come to grips with the person that AR is. Keeping busy is fine, but being OK with doing less actually does bring peace.

Doing less is the unlikely hero of your life.

Whether in your work, or your personal life, this is something we all should be thinking about.

Know when enough is enough.

Know when giving less time, and less effort, may actually bring you the same results with more happiness.

Doing less, is often more. Not only that. It is enough.

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  1. Dear AR,
    I get your points. Unfortunately I don’t have the choice as yours as a doctor. I want to slow down my pace but hospital tight schedule just keeps me crazy moreover during this Covid 19 pandemic period. Do you have any suggestion for me?

    1. Hey Dr. Goh – sorry for the delayed response, I was on vacation the latter half of last week! I don’t know that I have a proper answer for you in terms of work. I have a friend who works in a hospital and I know that you are pegged to work certain hours, overnight shifts, etc. But my friend also make sure to make the most of her time off. So even if your work is not something that you can push back from, there are other parts of your life that you can. Investing, Relationships, Vacation, Health, etc and I tried to put some solid examples in the section about employing the 85% rule in your entire life.

  2. I hear you. I’m trying to do less myself. I’m currently on my second two month sabbatical, and doing my best not to deal with all the business inquiries and random emails I get every day.

    That’s a really good title, if you are so successful, why are you still working 70 hours a week.

    I target 3 to 4 hours a day maximum. Slowly, I’ve been able to Let go more. But it’s been tough. Natural DNA to do something to provide for family.

    1. 100% – I think it’s hard because even when you retire early, you still want to provide a great life for your family. It is in our programming. And there is always someone else with more, or way more.

      I think 3-4 hours a day is a good target. You’ve built up a great business with Financial Samurai that will sustain for years to come even with minimal work. I think your call for guest posts and exploring how to slow down a bit in your second sabbatical will pay dividends!


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