Living on less is an artform. When I say less, I don’t mean less money. I mean less commitment, less time, less focus. In theory less is less, unless it’s more. Sometimes less can be more but you have to figure out where less leads to more more.
When I was a kid I would hear my father always complain about my grandmother throwing his stuff out when he was a child. There were many stories about grandma throwing this out or that out, or some important thing that belonged to him. In these reflections there two particular stories he would return to again and again. Apparently my father owned a Hulk #1 comic that my grandmother threw out and my father would always lament on how much money it would be worth today. He returned to this story often in my comic book collecting days. In another case apparently my father had a dog that my grandmother got rid of without telling my father. When my father saw the dog in the street on a family trip my grandmother forced my grandfather to drive away without getting the dog back. She clearly thought she had gotten rid of the dog for good when my father wasn’t around and that apparently wasn’t the case. We can debate the pros and cons to my grandmother’s decision making when it comes to what was appropriate to limit in her son’s life without traumatizing him, but that’s not the point. The point is, in these stories and all the other related ones, was that my grandmother had a very strong ability to limit stuff, basically to focus on less in her life. This in turn lead to her have more in her life, but more on that in a moment.
Time: Flash forward two generations. Now I’m the middle aged man and I have a bad back. Every morning I do physical therapist prescribed exercises to stretch my back and strengthen my abdominal muscles which in theory will help relieve pressure on the part of my back with the issue. It takes at least 40 minutes if I do everything the physical therapist told me to do. I’m a couple of years into it and I am experiencing diminishing returns, i.e. the exercising isn’t working every well. Not only this, but it’s repetitive and boring. So I started to drop some exercises, combined some others and do some of the routines every other day. My goal is to keep from losing any benefit I have gained from my prior diligence but also to keep from losing the 45 minutes every day. I am continually trying different versions of the exercise drill to shave minutes, keep my back from getting worse and get on with my day. Less exercising, leads to more time and ability to do other things in my life.
Money: It’s not just about time, in most instances it’s about money. There is an old adage that says that young professionals spend most of the first decade of their worknig life trying to achieve what their parents did over the entire course of their lives. These young professionals do this by acquiring lots of stuff including houses, new cars, furniture, vacation experiences and the inevitable debt load that comes with moving too fast in getting all these things. At some point, usually earlier in their careers, most professionals have some sort of experience where they rethink these early adulthood decisions. Maybe it’s when they lose their first job or they have a life event like an illness or some family change. Then the stuff you have becomes a burden. It’s either the wrong stuff or too much stuff, and requires service that is a weight on your shoulders. When I say weight, it’s stuff you have to store somewhere or stuff you have to pay for. As an old friend of mine used to say: “The thing of it is…” before they would explain a basic point. Well the thing of it is when it comes to stuff is that we spend this early part of our career motivated by how our bosses and family expected us to live, but most quickly discover that that is not how we should live. Now you have to get rid of this stuff to have more financial flexibility and less stress in our lives.
I have personal experience in this cycle. We went through the same process to learn to live within our means. When we decided to simplify our lives we had to do it over time. We cleaned out and sold things again and again we sold so much over time that I became an eBay powerseller. The first time I went through the pile I had some stuff I simply couldn’t give up. The second time, it was easier. The third time, easier still. You simply can’t do it in a single pass, it has to become a process. That’s the big key to this post.. It’s not a one time set and forget. It’s a process that’s ongoing. This process is now part of my lifestyle, of my very personality.
Focus: This is the ultimate benefit of intelligently doing more with less. When you combine careful focus on time and money management you get a unique skill: the ability to continually refocus on the important things. Now i’m doing it again with the Blog & Podcast. I started with many ideas some big, some little, and distilled it down again and again. Now i’m going to one meaty post per week and allowing myself the extra time to concentrate on other things, such as the book, as well as the down time I need to just reflect, reset and re-engage. (Squirrel Moment, doesn’t that sound like a great name for a post or speaking engagement? Peluso Presents: Don’t forget to reflect, reset, and re-engage!!).
Back to the topic at hand, So this is a simple post about life right? It’s a post about how to continually look around your house and life and remember to get rid of things? Well no. Going back to the example of my grandmother, she may not have had a million toys from when my father was a child hanging around her house but she always had a nice new house on the water in Florida, this on the income of an airplane mechanic. In the case of my exercising I can now lay in bed longer than I used to be able to and I’m going to try and continue to keep that up. When it came to eliminating everything, I didn’t sell my house and the opportunity to enjoy the appreciation of home equity by living in a tent or camper, I just moved to a smaller house. I eliminated distractions and focused on the things that still provided a benefit.
I often say and use the word right-sizing in a derivative way because right-sizing in the corporate world generally means eliminating people, even if there isn’t a fiduciary need to do it. In my opinion, in the professional world people are the most valuable asset and it’s hard to ever make a case that you need to let people go, especially if it’s involuntary on their part. This being said it is the correct term for what we were trying to do, which wasn’t just right-sizing, it was also right-focusing.
In the business world when they say less, it’s about less people and less expenses, but they miss the more part. Most business will take the less part so far they forget the ultimate goal of getting to ‘more’. They get so anemic they stop being able to service the customer or build the business. The prime example of how to screw up less comes from the tech sector. The company is CA or Computer Associates. Their entire business model is built around buying software companies, and bleeding them dry of people with layoffs and eliminating other resources that have a cost. They then proceed to squeeze every last penny out of the acquisition and when the product is no longer viable in the market, it’s shut down. They literally have built a massive business out of taking organizations built with great ideas and great people and destroying it all. Remember, through the layoffs they are destroying the lives of the people who invested massive amounts of time and energy into those smaller software companies before they were bought out. CA uses the profits to buy the next small software company and the practice of destruction cycles anew. I heard a quote from one competitive executive that “CA is where good software goes to die”. In effect the ‘less’ here makes the product line so anemic that it dies.
This behavior has been going on for a long time with big business. For example, I remember that in the 1980’s this behavior was one of the things that was reviled about the investment banking industry. These bankers would buy large organizations and break them apart and sell the pieces for greater than the sum of the initial purchase. This resulted in massive profits but also massive disruption to the business and the lives of the employees.
It can be done differently. Where less actually becomes a focus on continuous improvement. The only company I know well (i’m sure there are others) that focuses on less for the result of more was Apple. Apple has traditionally, at least for large corporations, been the outlier in this behavior. They don’t get involved in business unless there is something significantly new or different they can bring to the table. Their intensive focus on doing less but doing it better allowed them to grow and grow. It can be seen with their PC mice only having a single button, also the iphone also having a single button. Ok, maybe they are the single button company? Seriously it’s not about the buttons, it’s about their focus. They don’t ‘do’ cloud, they only do services as much as they have to. From product lines to the actual product structure, they have asked themselves, what can we take away to make the rest better? Apple was well known for walking away from industries that it didn’t feel were good fits in it’s focus on excellence. A great example is when Steve Jobs came back and stopped licensing their Operating System to third party manufacturers of hardware. If you wanted an Apple PC, you had to buy it from Apple where they could create a truly integrated experience. The result for Apple is that they have been growing and growing but I wonder how much of that is inertia? The new Apple under Tim Cook is a bit different than the Jobs era Apple, so it will be interested to watch if they continue their historical focus on less to create more.
CA and Apple are both extreme examples. Where CA is the poster child for doing so much less that you rapidly destroy the company, Apple was the ideal example of the opposite for focusing on much less to remain zero targeted on the best possible outcome. The reality is that most companies are like the young professional in the first decade of their careers. They feel they have to expand and expand and expand into every potential competing market. An example outside of Tech is Dole Packaged Foods. Dole just used to be pinapple juice from Hawaii. Now it’s a complete array of foods well beyond a single flavor of juice. General Electric is another example, GE is a manufacturing consortium that owns a television network. I don’t think network television has gotten better from the manufacturing expertise at GE.
Expansion is enticing. It’s great to think about owning a fully furnished 3 bedroom 2 bath house and two cars when your 23 years old. That’s not the best way to set yourself up for the long term. Microsoft may think it has to compete with Apple in the Music market, but Zune didn’t go anywhere, and neither does Groove look to as well. Both services had the potential to be the next Spotify but neither was able to achieve because there was no focus. In Microsoft’s case more resulted in less. There is even a super macro example. Governments that focus on basic utilities such as Trash, Roads, and other basic services tend to operate so exceptionally well we forget they are even there. Governments that have expanded into healthcare, communications, and social safety nets tend to not do any of these services at all well.
Most professional individual contributors can’t change the focus of a Microsoft, a General Electric, or a state or federal government. Even if you were a CEO, a Governor or a President it would still be tremendously difficult because you have to deal with legislatures, corporate division leadership and boards’ of directors. Even if you could change, usually these organizations are so forgone that refocusing generally means a single attempt by layoffs or selling divisions rather than making it a process built into everything the organization does.
I like to have something of value to offer to every person who engages my articles. In this case, the value is that doing less, focusing, eliminating distractors isn’t something that should be done every year like spring cleaning, or after a life event. It should be part of your daily activities, part of your world view. It should absolutely be part of who you are and how you make decisions in everything you do. You should always be on the lookout for opportunities to stop parts of what you are doing to help drive success in the other parts. If you can succeed in focusing your efforts the longer term success will be that much greater. Just don’t forget to be aware that there is a point where you will reach ‘enough is enough’. You don’t want to do so little writing that you kill the blog, or so little exercising that your back starts causing problems again. You don’t want to get rid of the pet and traumatize your child for their entire life. These are my experiences and stories, but anyone who’s listening to this message has their own versions in their life. It’s a balance, do less, but remember that if you are doing less, your doing it in a way to turn it into being able to accomplish more. This can be a difficult thing to see, and a difficult thing to do, but the benefits can be tremendous!