what I learned from my year of doing less
“Do Less, Know Why, Trust that a Path Exists”
Over the years my end-of-year reflection and planning process has taken on many forms. I’ve vision boarded, stream-of-consciousnessed, and action planned my way through all possible life domains in order to feel that sense of satisfaction that comes with having clarity of intention at the beginning of a fresh new year. But as 2013 drew to a close, I wasn’t feelin’ it. I was 3 months pregnant and exhausted, and I was rebelling against the thoughtfulness required for reflection, the striving required to set goals, all of it. So I ditched the goals, and instead, I created a mantra.
I wanted something simple, memorable, and meaningful. I started with “do less”, because that was what I wanted to do…less. I’d always been the kind of person who says yes to everything. It’s not that I don’t know how to say no, it’s that I have an intense fear of missing out. I’d think to myself “I can’t miss this event, because you never know who I might meet or what I might see or experience. This one night could change my life.” A practice that began as a belief in the serendipity of the universe had blown up into a dangerous and desperate case of FOMO.
“Know why” joined “do less” as a result of a conversation I had with my accountability partner, Lydia. I was trying to understand why I was so passionate at the beginning of a project and invariably bummed out and dare I say resentful by the end. She suggested that perhaps I had lost touch with why I said yes to begin with. If I could sustain my sense of purpose throughout the duration of a project, it might feed my passion and drive, and get me through to completion without a diminished sense of fulfillment. Awesome.
I’m honestly not sure where “trust that a path exists” came from. I subscribe to so many inspirational e-newsletters that it’s probably sourced from the language of Deepak or Oprah or Martha (my trifecta of gurus). I can be a white-knuckler, as in “white knuckling the universe”. If I have a defining quality it’s my determination, my ability to accomplish something by the sheer force of my own will. Which is great, except that it’s exhausting and more than a little bit of a drag to be around. By “trusting that a path exists”, I loosened my grip on the universe, on my dreams, and I found that sweet spot of owning my desires while simultaneously offering them to the universe for fulfillment.
What I Discovered
I worked with this mantra for all of 2014. Sometimes one part of it was more pertinent than another. When I felt like life was not unfolding as I wanted, I would repeat, “trust that a path exists”. When I felt the pull of my long to-do list, I would breath “do less”, and move a particular task to tomorrow.
The effects of engaging in this practice were transformative and more than a little surprising. Here are a few of my top lessons from my year of doing less…
- Doing less inside is just as important as doing less outside. (AKA Creating inner spaciousness) Like many of us, I tend to be an internal multi-tasker. When I’m taking a shower, I’m not JUST taking a shower. I’m also rehearsing a conversation with my manager, calculating how many days since my last audition, planning my day, etc. etc. etc. I began to see that “doing less” doesn’t just mean limiting the length of my to do list, but it also means doing just what it is that I’m doing and that’s it. I don’t need to solve world hunger while I’m cooking dinner, I just need to cook dinner. I discovered that doing less on the inside was equally if not more powerful that doing less on the outside. The micromoments when I would catch myself internally multitasking and choose to lean all of my awareness into just the task at hand became a transformational practice, and opened up an entire world of spaciousness within.
- Doing less opens up more space for stuff to happen. (AKA Witnessing outer magic) One of the things that’s amazing about growing a baby is that you actually don’t do anything. Okay, I know you DO something, but once you’ve done it, all the rest kind of happens magically. It’s a profound experience to behold this life growing of it’s own accord. I created an entire person with no effort on my part. This isn’t to say that pregnancy is easy by any stretch of the imagination, but there are no tasks to be done. It just happens. I found that when I surrendered to doing less, the same kind of effortless creation began to appear in all areas of my life. How did I do this? I started by getting draconian about limiting the number of things I committed to doing each day, which freed up all of this energy I didn’t even know I’d been wasting by managing my expectations of my productivity. I planned to do less, I wasn’t just unproductive, so I got to experience that awesome feeling of accomplishment every day. This outer doing less combined with my inner doing less generated a sense of flow and ease in my life that was incredibly liberating and ironically super productive. When I reviewed my 2014 I was stunned by my accomplishments: I bought a house, I sold a house, I birthed a baby, I booked four jobs, I produced a theatre show, I produced a webseries, I developed and taught an online course, just to name a few of the results-oriented achievements of my year. My most financially lucrative month of the year was the month my daughter was born and I did nothing but lie around. Go figure.
- Doing less allowed me to experience more. (AKA Increasing depth of attention) I’ve always hated the idea that you have to sacrifice breadth for depth. This idea that I can’t do it all well has never sat well with me. All the hedging and platitudes annoy me, such as, “Well, you can do it all, you just can’t do it all at once.” or “Jack of all trades, master of none.” My inner rebel cries out against such limitation. But the truth is, when I try to do too many things, my attention gets scattered. And what is attention but your very life force, the energy of spirit moving in the direction of something. By doing less I was able to expand the quality of my attention. I learned that when I really pay attention, my present moment awareness opens up so that the entire world exists in the now. And that feels like having it all, all at once.
- Doing less helped me to see what to do next. (AKA Discovering clarity of purpose) I love having a plan. It’s so comforting. If someone says, “What are you doing next?” you bet I’ll have an answer. This past year I had to get very comfortable not having a plan. I trusted that the next step would show itself to me, and you know what, it always did. When I was unsure what would come of my adjunct teaching gig once the baby came, I lived in that place of being unsure. I talked about not knowing, I breathed into the not knowing, I smiled into the not knowing. Then one day I got an email about switching over to teaching online, and my next step became clear. Once I got over always having to know what I was doing, I started asking better questions. And you know what I got, right? You guessed it, better answers.
Now that it’s 2015, I do have goals for this year, sort of. But my goals are infused with what I learned from my year of doing less: they’re filled with more joy, purpose and attention, and less striving, clinging, and fear.
I’d love to hear your favorite year-end reflection rituals, and year-beginning planning ideas? What works for you, mama?