How to simplify your life

01.24.14 Thumbnail SimpleZenBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

January needn’t be a time to make well intentioned promises to yourself that you soon break.

Share this article!

01.24.14 SimpleZenBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

January needn’t be a time to make well intentioned promises to yourself that you soon break.

(And most do get broken. According to a University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, one-fourth of resolutions only last a week, and over half are broken within 6 months.)

My strong advice is to start by making room in your life for the good habits you want.


I asked a Zen teacher how I might simplify my life.

I spoke with Marc Lesser, CEO of ZBA Associates LLC. He developed and taught a leadership program at Google called “Search Inside Yourself.” Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years and is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less, and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life.  (See his Google TechTalk, “How to Accomplish More by Doing Less.”)

Marc says, set a daily goal of three key tasks and do nothing else, until they are done.

He counsels his coaching clients to state explicitly what a good day looks like, and how it would be measured. What does success look like? Is that shared with the other folks in the company?

When you know very clearly where you are going, when you can clearly describe the desired end state, that makes it easier to identify the next steps, and makes it easier to be on task. When the future is vague it can be hard to identify the next step, which makes it easier to hide by surfing the net.

The only effective treatment for true Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) starts with mindfulness and radical acceptance.

So, where does a CEO start?

Marc describes the “Less Manifesto” as being five areas where we can do less and accomplish more:

  1. Fear — facing it, realizing we are not our fears, and accepting our fears without being caught by them
  2. Assumptions — noticing or realizing what assumptions we are making about other people’s inner states and emotions (and other things) and making them explicit, clearing the air
  3. Reduce Distractions — identify the things outside ourselves that we allow to dictate our days, and learn to subordinate them, and become inner directed
  4. Reduce Resistance — noticing the thing we don’t want to look at or acknowledge, and look at it
  5. Finding the One Who Is Not Busy — being still in the midst of chaos

For example, we can reduce our Fear by listing all of them on the left half of a sheet of paper. Once we’ve listed them all — fear of losing a job, fear of having no money, and so on — we can then on the right hand half of that sheet, write down — next to each fear — what my next step is.

This reduces the terror of our fears, and empowers us by identifying specific things we can do.

Marc will often walk into an organization and find that it’s like walking up to a fish tank and seeing that the water is really dirty. The fish inside may not really notice. For people, “keeping the water clean” involves not allowing things to fester — creating a culture of openness to hearing bad news — doing surveys to find out how people actually feel, rather than assuming they are this way or that way.

Marc coaches people to ask, “What can I do better?” or “What are two things I can do differently to make our team more effective?” We also have to be open to hearing the answers, and then identifying the next steps we can take with that feedback.

Start by noticing. Take a survey of our time and where it goes. How much of our time goes into surfing the web, and how much goes into being focused and energetic. Less than 10% of managers are both focused and energetic. With energy we do things. With focus we do the right things.

One focusing tool is to think about how short our lives are, and that we will all die. Another is to visualize end states and identifying next steps. Another is to answer e-mail and voice mail only a few times a day.

Resistance is what we feel when we are avoiding something that we are afraid of — we fear our finances, so we avoid looking at the bills.

Almost all top tennis players have the ability to use the 20 seconds between points to dramatically lower their heart rates. Many will close their eyes. You can find a moment of stillness even in chaos, and use that to re-center yourself.

If you’re ready, now you know how to simplify your life.

You’ll be glad you did. I am.