ONE OF THE DEFINING features of the American business model is a relentless impulse to add more: more bells, more whistles, more choice, more services, more hours, more convenience, more product extensions, more everything! In our personal lives, it’s no different. We’ve been taught that if we want more money, achievement, energy, happiness, satisfaction, then we need to do more — work more, acquire more, add more to our bulging to-do lists.
But what if it’s wrong? What if the answer to getting what we want isn’t addition at all, but subtraction?
For a lot of business owners, this was one of the surprising lessons of the pandemic: They could get by just fine with less. Often, they had no choice but to cut down on business hours, shed staff, reduce advertising dollars and streamline operations. And the result was that they still made the same or even more money, only in a less stressful, less hurried way.
Lee Krombholz of Krombholz Jewelers in Cincinnati found that streamlining his business resulted in greater profitability. “We used to be a ‘mom and pop’ store doing everything and having long hours,” he says. “We are now a boutique store with shorter hours and fewer employees. This has led us to some of the most profitable years our store has ever had.”
Likewise, J. Rankin Jewellers in Edmonds, WA, makes more with less these days. “We moved to an upstairs appointment-only operation, and we have become so much busier, more streamlined. And much more efficient. Also, more time off to spend with family, while the time at work is quality time,” says co-owner Meg Rankin.
The idea that “less is more” most likely holds true in your own business experience as well. Throw yourself at every opportunity, and you end up doing run-of-the-mill stuff poorly. The benefits of eliminating all but the essential things are clarity, focus, energy, and often beauty.
But as fundamental as this idea of “less is more” is, it seems to be one of those things we need to keep learning. Partly it’s because we humans are wired to accumulate, hoard and add. MRI scans show different parts of the brain light up when we consider addition or subtraction — but they are not part of the same calculation. According to Leidy Klotz, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Engineering Systems and Environment school and the author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, when confronted with a problem, we instinctively look to add something rather than take an element away. The idea of growth and enlargement, he says, is invariably viewed as positive, associated with progress, attainment and success. Eliminating something is rarely considered as the first option.Advertisement
We humans tend to complicate things. But when we go the opposite direction, the rewards can be sublime.
Matthew May, an innovation consultant who has worked with a range of companies from Toyota to Microsoft and is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, says his message to corporate clients covers three key principles that can be applied in any organization: what isn’t there often trumps what is; the simplest rules create the most effective experience; and limiting information engages the imagination.
“(By subtracting), you can cut through the noise and confusion of a chaotic world so that even the most complex things make more sense. You can draw and direct attention to what matters most so that your products and services have more meaning for others. You can focus energy and make your strategy more effective,” he says.
If you’re looking for a business theme in 2022, perhaps “less is more” could be it. Certainly, the historical moment seems to call for it. In a widely read essay published by Medium, writer and director Julio Vincent Gambuto sums up what’s at stake nicely: “At no other time, ever in our lives, have we gotten the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply stopped. [So] think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud. We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.”
In the pages that follow, we share the ideas and thoughts we’ve gleaned from jewelry retailers, industry consultants, our own reading of business best-sellers and articles to identify 23 areas where you could do a little less … but be so much more.
We’ve all heard about the Pareto Principle: the 80/20 rule that 20 percent of an activity produces 80 percent of the desired results. In a business setting, it suggests you should aim to spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of your activities responsible for delivering the bulk of your income. The hardest part of this advice is working out what NOT to do, because even deeply meaningful activities and productive work can be distractions and time sinks if they are not the work that matters. That’s the logic behind a suggestion attributed to Warren Buffett: First, write down your top 25 goals for business. Then identify the most important five, focus on them, and avoid the other 20 like the plague, because they’re the seductive ones most likely to distract you, precisely because they do matter — they just don’t matter most. In your attempt to climb a mountain, you don’t want to spend your life upgrading your climbing gear only to reach the summit and realize you’d been scaling the wrong mountain.
Either use an organizational system that stores all your to-dos out of sight and out of mind (other than a tiny handful that you’re working on right now) or toss it altogether. In Secrets of Productive People, Mark Forster argues for the latter. Most people’s to-do lists are flights of fancy, nothing more than wish lists of everything they’d like to accomplish. And worse, they use them to avoid doing the important things. It’s still procrastination, he points out, to do a lot of pointless tasks just because it feels nice to cross them off the list, while the big, difficult thing — the one that matters — goes undone. Forster proposes a minimalist alternative: On a piece of paper, write down only the five most important tasks you can think of. Then do them, in order, crossing them off as you go. (If you stop before completing one, add it again at the end.) Once the list is only two items long, add three more, to bring the total back to five. Then repeat. The point of this austere approach is that you’re regularly required to ask what really needs doing, since there are only five slots.
Saying “no” is one of the most important disciplines you can develop to ensure you stay focused on what’s important in your pursuit of a minimal (and sane) life. It helps to keep in mind that whenever you say “yes,” you’re also saying “no” to something else. As Greg McKeown points out in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, questions such as, “How can I fit everything I want to do into my schedule?” are fundamentally dishonest: They’re based on the false premise that trade-offs are avoidable. For the over-busy person, McKeown suggests his “90% Rule”: When considering an option, ask yourself if it scores at least 9 out of 10 on some relevant criterion? Another trick is to bring forward the obligation from the seemingly boundless future: If you were being asked to do it today, would the answer be yes or no?
The Underachiever’s Manifesto doesn’t sound like the book you’d find on the shelves of the ambitious business owner looking forward to doing great things in 2022. But it should be. Written by a doctor named Ray Bennett, it advocates a path to a superior kind of achievement based on the idea that you need to leave some slack in your life to take advantage of the serendipity of the world and its enormously complex web of interacting variables. On this point, he quotes that Spanish underachiever Pablo Picasso: “You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two … In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.”
A similar philosophy informs the book Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute. The book begins by rejecting the premise that it’s worth trying to squeeze value from every moment of every day. To get more out of machines or computers, it’s almost always best to run them for longer. But they can’t get tired; humans can. Instead, Davis proposes fighting hard to ringfence one two-hour period of distraction-free work each day, at a time of peak energy — during which you’ll probably get more meaningful stuff done than in two whole days at half-power. There is a corollary of this: Schedule admin for when you don’t have energy for focused work.
There’s evidence to suggest that we need to daydream; perhaps we also need those moments of afternoon lassitude and aimless conversations in the backroom. Creative work, especially, depends on a kind of inefficiency. Breakthroughs depend on being stumped and feeling frustrated. In Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, Tina Selig, a Stanford business professor, urges you to bask in your problem for a while. If you go straight to the solution, you will likely end up thinking too narrowly, whereas if you frame wider, you can often come up with a creative answer. “Living in that problem space and falling in love with your problems is one of the most powerful ways to unlock really innovative solutions,” she says.
“Doing nothing isn’t an option.” Oh, yes, it is. And it’s often the best one, says Jason Fried, the co-founder of software company Basecamp in his anti “cult of work” manifesto, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. “’Nothing’ should always be on the table,” Fried writes. “Change makes things worse all the time. It’s easier to f*ck up something that’s working well than it is to genuinely improve it. But we commonly delude ourselves into thinking that more time, more investment, more attention is always going to win. That’s why rather than jumping on every new idea right away, we make every idea wait a while. Generally a few weeks, at least. That’s just enough time either to forget about it completely or to realize you can’t stop thinking about it.”
Many business owners and managers fall into the category known as over-functioners. Faced with a challenge, an employee who is not doing a task properly, or a request for help, they immediately jump in and do it themselves. It’s an approach that is not only tiring but reinforces the expectant or helpless behavior of customers and staff. “I think sometimes you try to be a little bit of everything , which is not a bad thing, but your talent and time get pulled in too many directions, and it makes it hard to really do things well,” says Becky Bettencourt, operations manager at Blue River Diamonds (Peabody, MA).
Don’t assume that because someone else wants something done, it needs doing, says the law professor Elizabeth Emens in her book, The Art of Life Admin. Learn to use strategic delay (some things sort themselves out), and train employees and family to recognize when a version of “Google it yourself!” is the answer to their question. Such an approach means potentially letting small bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. To quote the psychologist Carin Rubenstein, overfunctioners need a new motto: “Be less than you can be!”
How do I know what to subtract? Ask someone, says Matthew May, author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning in the Age of Excess Everything. Something like, “What’s the one or two things you’d love me to remove or stop doing?” They’ll usually have a surprising number of suggestions, he says. Another good question: “What would my competitor struggle with if I eliminated it?” Once you have answers, May recommends running quick tests under a system he labels “enlightened trial and error.”
Productivity blogger Tim Ferriss advocates taking this approach to an extreme as a “forcing function”. In an essay entitled “17 Questions That Changed My Life,” he writes: “The question I found most helpful was, ‘If I could only work two hours per week on my business, what would I do?’ Honestly speaking, it was more like, ‘Yes, I know it’s impossible, but if I had a gun to my head or contracted some horrible disease, and I had to limit work to two hours per week, what would I do to keep things afloat?’” Confronted with such a constraint, you may be surprised at the ideas that you or your team come up with.
The Jevons paradox explains how traffic doesn’t improve even when you build a 24-lane highway. Make something more efficient, and more people will use it. Less obviously, the same rule applies to work: Prove you get things done quickly, and more will be asked of you.
Just because your problem is one of strained capacity, don’t assume increasing capacity is the answer. It may make more sense to reduce, or at least put a ceiling on, your capacity instead. Resolve to process email for a certain period each day, rather than trying to answer it all, and you’ll moderate the incoming flow. (Promptly answered email only ever spurs more email.) The same thing applies to customer expectations. Always respond to a customer within two hours, and that becomes the minimum a customer or business partner will tolerate. As the old chestnut goes, under promise and over deliver. Think a job will take five days? Tell the customer seven and deliver on the sixth. Their surprise and gratitude will be genuine.Advertisement
Working fewer days and hours is obviously great for families, friendships, hobbies and the human spirit. But the most interesting implication of recent research is that it appears to be good for productivity and work quality, too. The brain needs to rest to operate well. Meanwhile, fixed shorter hours provide a useful sense of constraint: Knowing you’ve got to squeeze everything into fewer days seems to improve efficiency overall. In 2016’s Deep Work, Cal Newport advocates this approach via “fixed-schedule productivity” – that is, setting certain periods for intense important work during a day, applying a short transition period or ritual to mark the end of the workday, and then completely stopping at a certain time.
The team at The Jewelry Mechanic in Oconomowoc, WI, has recently taken this approach and benefited in myriad ways. “Four years ago, I suggested we keep the studio closed on Tuesday, just to work. My husband and business partner thought it was crazy talk,” says co-owner Jo Goralski. “I asked what was the point of being open five days a week if we never get work done? I argued that if business dropped off dramatically, we could always reopen. Funny thing is, the harder something is to get, the more folks want it!”
Goralski says that when the team needs a break, they put a sign on their door that reads, “This family business is doing family business, making sure to take care of our mental health.”
At the heart of every challenge or business decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore; what to leave in versus what to leave out; and what to do versus what not to do. “I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice — what to ignore, what to leave out, what not to do — the decision becomes exponentially simpler. The key is to remove the extraneous stuff — anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, hard to use or ugly,” May writes in The Laws of Subtraction.
Too often, managers assume the key to improvement must be more procedures and standards, more exactingly enforced. But the experience that results for customers is often infuriating as they are met by salespeople who refuse to be flexible. The secret is to create policies for the many, not the few. That allows you to design policies to bring out the best in people, not micromanage their every move or bind them in red tape. Netflix claims to have no vacation policy, leaving it up to staff to track and decide. Materials company WI Gore did away with all job titles. Electronics chain Best Buy implemented a “results-only work environment,” in which staff could work where and when they liked, so long as their jobs got done. In short, the idea is that less bureaucracy + trust = more creativity.
The Peter Principle states that in hierarchies, people “rise to their level of incompetence.” Do your job well, and you’re rewarded with promotion, until you reach a job you’re less good at, where you remain. The result is that over time, a business’s overall talent levels will gradually deteriorate. GE’s Jack Welch’s answer to this was to regularly prune the bottom 10 percent of his employees on the basis that subpar performers drag down an organization. It’s harsh, but if you maintain high standards, you may find you need fewer workers.
It is not only employees that need regular evaluation and subtraction, but also your customers. Be willing to fire those that are a drain on your resources, says Anthony K. Tjan. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he recommends regularly subtracting the least valuable 5 percent of your customer base. “It is a fallacy that you need to keep all your customers because many of the small customers will become large ones,” he says, recommending you look at your data to see if that has really occurred. What you are more likely to find, he argues, is a stubbornly consistent 5 percent of your customers who buy in small volumes and require higher maintenance as a cohort than other groups. “You want to give the most time, energy, and service to those who will provide the greatest long-term reward and loyalty.”
Meetings have a bad rap as a time trap — and often it’s justified. They proceed at the pace of either the slowest participant or the need of the manager to hold centerstage. According to studies, executives find at least half of all meetings unproductive. Perhaps, then, you can strive for fewer and better. The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one is this: Is it a “status report” meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it’s probably better handled via email or the bulletin board in the backroom. That leaves a minority of “good” meetings whose value lies in the coming together of minds, such as a well-run brainstorming session.Advertisement
The conventional wisdom says a good sales pitch is built on three main points, based on the thought the customers can’t keep more than three ideas in their head at one time. Tjan says to strip your story down to one core idea. “A simple story that repeats a consistent theme is better than a truckload of documents and demos. Subtract and seduce around a single idea,” he says.
Use half as many words, and they’ll hit twice as hard. Every writer knows it. Salespeople need to learn it. When you talk too much, you come across as anxious and nervous or defensive and combative. “Selling is a transfer of confidence. The seller must transfer his or her confidence in the product to the buyer. When you babble, you don’t sound confident,” say Roy H. Williams, author of the bestselling Wizard of Ads. “Always answer questions as asked. This means that you should focus your energies on providing the simplest answer in the fewest words. If your customer wants to know more, they’ll ask you a follow-up question.”
Most retailers believe the more choice, the better. But studies show too many options can overwhelm the shopper and freeze decision-making. As NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway noted recently in his “No Mercy / No Malice” column, “Consumers want less choice, but instead confidence in the (fewer) choices presented to them.” Limit the choices a customer has to make, and you will restore some of the joy of shopping (and improve your conversion rate). To support these processes, eliminate pieces from your cases that are too close in price and style. “Aim to show customers no more than three different items at a time,” says sales trainer Shane Decker. Also, limit the number of vendors you buy from. With fewer suppliers to work with, you can establish a true partnership based on ensuring both parties do well.
Williams says small businesses need to be wary of what he calls “Fortune 500 concepts,” and the most dangerous of these is the idea of a “media mix.”
“The widespread belief about the value of a ‘media mix’ has caused small business owners to sprinkle their ad budgets across several different media because they are worried they are going to ‘miss’ someone. After all, ‘Not everyone listens to the radio.’ ‘Not everyone watches the news.’ ‘Not everyone looks at billboards.’ ‘Not everyone blah, blah, blah.’
“Advertiser, you can’t afford to reach everyone. You’ve got to choose who to lose.
“Would you rather reach 100 percent of the people and convince them 10 percent of the way or reach 10 percent of the people and convince them 100 percent of the way?” he says.
In the current age, nothing makes life feel as fragmented, rushed and overwhelming as digital technology, social media in particular. Thus the emergence in the last few years of the “digital minimalism” movement, which essentially involves demanding that any given device, app or online activity makes a major positive difference to your life before you allow it any time or attention. “We hook up to email addresses and Slack channels and then just rock’n’roll with messages all day long … hoping busy-ness will transmute into value,” observes Cal Newport, whose book DEEP WORK makes the case that constant connectivity is disastrous for both job satisfaction and the bottom line. Start by getting rid of the social media apps on your phone. You can always check them at set hours on your desktop.
Simplifying your life, subtracting the extraneous or finding the elegant solution to a problem are difficult and at times dispiriting because they imply that no, you can’t have it all, you can’t do everything you want in life or business. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s liberating, says Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals. Knowing you can’t possibly get everything done spares you the anxiety of trying to figure out how you could. To spend time or effort on anything is, by definition, to choose not to spend that time or effort on an infinite number of alternatives. Declining to do something that seems worthwhile is a reaffirmation that doing the best job for your current customer matters more.