The Importance of Doing Less

Some of the best work advice I ever received wasn’t work advice at all. It was basketball advice. A couple years ago a friend and former university basketball player joined my recreational team for a game when we were short on players. The next day I asked him for tips on how I could improve my game. To be clear, I love basketball, but am not particularly good at it. My enthusiasm for the game, and my limited understanding of how to play it, both manifest themselves in the same way. Here’s how — in any given shift I am in constant, usually rudderless, motion. I run around the court banging into people (opponents and teammates alike) in an effort to, if nothing else, seem like I’m trying really hard. So when I asked my friend if there was anything I could do to improve my game, he thought for a moment, then looked at me and said two words… “Do less”.

He suggested that as a big, but not particularly skilled 35 year old (then, 40 now), rather than wearing myself out zig zagging around the court but not really impacting the game, instead I should pick a spot close to the net and either wait for the ball, or wait for the chance to go for a rebound. Do less. It was great basketball advice, but it turned out to be even better work advice. In fact, even several years later it’s something I find myself thinking about all the time — especially now.

I am a very opinionated person. Usually that’s a good thing for a strategist (or anyone really) to be, but where it gets me into trouble is that often I don’t know when to shut up and either just let something go or trust that the people around me will figure it out without me. An ad agency is a dynamic workplace with a fresh set of ever-changing problems to be solved and choices to me made. I love it. But if you try to tackle every single one of those problems yourself, you’ll not only burn yourself out, but you won’t be able to focus on the problems that really need your attention because you’ll be too busy weighing in on everyone else’s. Do less.

This problem has been exacerbated by remote working. Back to back video conference calls means I’m often checking emails, while carrying out a conversation, while engaged in half a dozen instant messenger chats, with a dozen different browser tabs open. We’re apart, yet we’re more available than ever. We’re alone, but we’re more distracted than ever. Multitasking and constantly changing gears from one client to the next will always be part of my job. But part of my job must also be periods of focused, nuanced thought and expression. I like to oscillate between the two. Think deeply about something, then put it aside and triage several smaller tasks, then come back the bigger thing. But lately the smaller tasks have been crowding out the bigger, more important tasks. Do less. At least for part of the day.

The other reason I find myself doing too much is because, well, I really enjoy what I do. If there is something cool happening, I want to be part of it. If there’s a problem the team has been struggling with, I want to help crack it. If there’s a debate about whether an ad is good or not, I want in on it. To use the parlance of the day, I want all the smoke.

Doing less doesn’t mean caring less, or even necessarily working less. It means being smarter about what you choose to focus your attention on. It means figuring out where you can be most impactful, and then cutting out some of the distractions that take up your time and energy. When I remind myself to do less, I do it because hopefully it means I’ll be impacting more. And if you’re a 40-year-old rec league basketball player with broad shoulders but bad knees, it means standing close to the net and cleaning up the trash. Less running, more scoring. In other words, do less.

Oh these? There’s are for a campaign I’m currently working. Feel free to click on them if you’d like. Or not. That’s fine too. They’ll make more sense in a couple weeks…

Storyteller, problem solver, bon vivant. Chief Strategy Officer at Ogilvy Toronto. @thomaskenny