Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #108 There’s Less to Do Than You Think
About this episode

In this episode of The Gathering Room, you’ll learn how little you really have to do. If you think that sounds too easy, change what you think, not what you do. Come see how! (Originally aired: January 8, 2023)


Martha Beck:

Today’s Gathering Room is about something that I just really, really, really needed to know about five minutes ago. The moral of the story, I will beat myself to the punch right here. Spoiler alert, the moral is there is less to do than you’d think. There is less to do than you think. I just tried to do a whole lot more than I could with a Facebook that wasn’t working and then I just realized I’ll just have to do Instagram. There’s less to do. There’s not more to do.

It’s just another example of the way these days every time I sit down to do something, I think I have a lot to do and it turns out I’m doing too much. It turns out that I’m driving myself crazy, ruining relationships and my health by doing what I think needs to be done, when in fact, a lot less needs to be done. Our culture is so productivity obsessed. I think we all grew up with this idea that if we’re not constantly producing something and constantly doing something proactive and virtuous and constructive, then we’re not doing enough.

I believe we’re doing much, much, much too much. We’ve had great sickness in my house. Everybody’s been sick, I’ve been sick. The kid’s sick. The dog is sick, everybody’s sick. It really taught me all over again, as I learned during the 12 years that I could barely move, that when you’re given the gift of physical limitation, it pairs down what you decide has to happen. This has been helping me lately. The time of great sickness has helped me pair down my life. I decided, for example, that I was going to, so I’m writing this book and it has a lot to do with creativity.

I thought, “I am going to be resurrected by creativity.” I’m going to do creative things. I’m going to do creative writing, I’m going to do creative projects. I’m going to do art, which I love. Then I thought, “But that’s too much to do. That’s too much to do.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll just try drawing for 10 minutes a day. I’ll do one sketch a day.” I sat down and I started to draw. Number one, after a minute of just drawing for pleasure, I felt this deep contentment rising in me, because I was just in it.

When I’m drawing the right hemisphere of my brain goes on and it’s just like, “Woo.” But the other thing was I remembered that the thing I always do wrong in art is to overwork my paintings, overwork my drawings, overdo, overdo, put in too much detail, too much color, too much paint, too much whatever. I spent years learning to pull back. Then with my writing, before I sold this last book I spent a year doing the proposal. I sent my poor agent hundreds and hundreds of pages of tightly researched detailed, like scientific, references to bear up my point.

She kept calling me back and saying, “Marty, could you just tell me what you think? Because I really don’t care about these other people.” I was like, “But you must, it is an academic necessity.” She’s like, “I’m not an academic. I just want to read.” I had to pull back, pull back, pull back. I’ve been thinking today I’ve seen more lives ruined or at least messed up by people trying to do too much, so many more lives and jobs and relationships ruined by trying to do too much than by under working.

Sometimes it’s not people who do that much, but they think they have to do so much. That’s why I call this, there is less to do than you think. There’s a lot to do. You have to breathe, you have to eat a few times a day, or at least a few times a week. You have to have a minimum of human contact. You have to have enough to live and pay your taxes. That’s a lot. That’s a lot. Life is a lot. But if you parrot down to almost just what you have to do, it’s not nearly what most people think.

Here’s the first thing. When I’m sick, as I was a week ago, really sick, I could barely breathe. I remembered being sick all those years. I remembered that when you have no energy. You may have heard me talk about spoon theory, which is not my idea, it’s on Wikipedia, you can check it out. It was based on a woman who had multiple sclerosis sitting with a friend in a restaurant. The friend said to her, “What’s it like to have MS?” She said, “Well, let me show you something.”

She took a bunch of spoons that were on a nearby table and she said, “Each of these spoons represents a unit of energy. You wake up with about 50 of them every day. You get a spoon and you wash your hair, that costs a spoon, you have breakfast, that costs a spoon, you take a shower, it costs a spoon, drive the kids to work to school, it costs a spoon. At the end of the day, you may have used 30 spoons, but you still have 20 left to hang out with your family or whatever.”

She put down all but four spoons. She said, “This is what I wake up with, this is what I have.” I was kind of the same way. Maybe I had seven spoons. I don’t think I was that as badly off as she was. But here’s the thing, when you don’t have many spoons, you have to say, “Most of the stuff I’m doing can be edited out.” Most of it is extraneous. Here is my motto for life, and I want you to really, really hear this. It’s a bold thing. It’s a bold thing, but if you can do this, your life will be perfect.

Well, perfectly itself. Here it is. If you don’t have to do something and you don’t want to do that thing, don’t do it. That’s it. If you don’t have to or you don’t want to, don’t do it. Cut it all out. The fact is that most of us have enough spoons most of the time that we’re like, “Oh, I could at least do this or that. It would be nice for Bob, if I did this or that and I don’t want to, I don’t have to, but I’m going to do it.” Well, that ends up filling your entire calendar and it doesn’t serve your mission.

When you’re down to four, or seven, 10 spoons a day, what you do is you become an incipient life coach. I lay there for 12 years going, “I have four spoons a day. What should I do?” Okay, what is my mission in this world? What do I want to have happen to me? What do I want to do in the world to make a difference? What is my mission? I defined a mission, which was, my mission was to achieve a level of consciousness where I’m conscious of the presence of the divine and to let that spread out from me if it decides to happen that way.

That became my mission, and I actually wrote it down. Then every single thing I did, for years, I would write down what people wanted me to do and I would see if it served the mission. If it didn’t serve the mission and I didn’t absolutely have to do it, I wouldn’t do it. This means that I promise you, I promise you, whoever you are out there, you have done so much more in your life than I have in mine. I’m old, I’ve been here a while. I have done so little in my life, but it is very targeted.

For example, when I draw now, I put very few marks on the page. I mean, I try to keep them off, but they have to be in the right places. When you write something creatively, which I’ve been trying to do more, I’m trying to be more creative, you put just a few words on the page. If you’re a poet, you put barely any words on the page, but they have to be the right words. Define your mission, see if something supports that, and then do the absolute bare minimum that you have to.

If you have spoons after that, go ahead, do whatever you want or do what you don’t want then or do what people want you to, if it doesn’t exhaust you, if you have spoons left over. But I’m going to run through a few things to do in relationships. I swear if I could send my dogs into space, like the Russians used to do, I would do it right now. I don’t know if you can hear them barking, but they’re a lot louder than I am. They don’t realize there is not that much to do.

Anyway, I just thought I’d go through in relationships, we do so much, too much in relationships. I train coaches and they always want to know what they should do. I will tell you what you can do if you want to help someone else professionally or just across the table at lunch, listen, be quiet and listen. Relax and listen. Don’t even think about what you’re going to say. Just listen. Just listen. People freaking love that. If they’ve got someone listening, it sort of pulls an energy through them to you.

If you’re really listening, if you really want the truth, it pulls their truth into their own consciousness and then out to you and they feel connected to you and you feel connected to them. That’s all it takes. The other night, our two-year-old had a very bad tantrum. I actually, Karen and Roe, ask a friend, if you don’t know who these people are, they are traveling with Lila. Lila had a real grand mal tantrum and they called me in the night and Lila was just losing her mental crap, because she went on a plane.

She met a lot of people. All these things that have never happened before because of the pandemic. She was just really overstimulated and she couldn’t regulate her emotions. She was just screaming and thrashing. Well, I had three other kids, so I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s just screaming and thrashing.” They do that. They do it very loudly and vigorously for hours sometimes. All you have to do is still be confident, listen and reflect on their emotions.

“Wow, that’s a lot of emotion. You really need to scream right now. I’m right here.” Read a book. They’re fine. They just want you to be there. Listen to them and don’t try to do so much. Okay? That’s relationships. Health. We have this thing we’re supposed to work out every day. I keep getting into this. I have to work out every day and try to do more and harder things. Then I got sick and I was like, “Oh, I cannot.” I went to my physical therapist, because ever since my foot surgery, I have been going to physical therapy.

I have this wonderful physical therapist, and she knew I’d been sick. She’s like, “Let’s just do a few exercises to help strengthen your feet.” Within a few minutes, I was doing my usual thing at physical therapy, which is my exercise that I was doing was lifting my big toes without lifting the other toes. It was excruciating. I did it eight times. She goes, “That’s enough.” I was like, “Are you serious? You have all this medical training, I come in here, we’re trying to make me start…”

She’s like, “That’s what you need. You need to wiggle your toes a little this week. Do it eight times. Wiggle your big toe. Then if you really want to push, raise your other toes without the big one.” Don’t even get me started on that. That was my workout and I went home. Here’s the thing. She keeps giving me things like that to do. They are that tiny. The other things like cardio, lifting, weights, going, riding my, it’s all happening because I’m getting stronger in these little muscles that never got used enough.

I’ve always worked out a bit. I’ve done the big things with the big muscles and she’s teaching me to do the little things with the little muscles. What happens then, just like with a relationship, I don’t feel like I’m doing very much, and yet everything else starts to happen, because I have more spoons. It’s so weird. Not only when you do small things and only what’s in your mission, do you get more time and you get things a better result, you also get additional spoons.

Yes. I got well and nobody even knows why. I just started doing only what I want and what serves my mission and I got physically better. Finally, work. We’ve talked about life, mission, life mission. If your work doesn’t serve your life, mission, aim, set an intention to get them on the same track, because you should be able to do your life, mission and make a living. That’s my belief. Do what serves your mission, do what brings you joy. If you have to do something that you don’t really, really want to, we all have to.

I’m doing an event tomorrow night to launch the paperback of my last book. I like that. That’s not horrible for me, but it’s not something I sit, I’ll wait and go, “Oh, I wish I couldn’t go and do another Zoom presentation.” No, no, no. But given that I’m going to do it, I’m going to show up and give it the bare minimum. I’ve talked to you, I think about the lying flat movement in China. It came from this social movement that just said, if you have to go to work, just lie down and do as little as you can.

It actually led to the so-called quiet quitting movement in America, which is people simply going to work and doing the bare minimum stuff they don’t like for their job. I recommend it. I’m surprised people weren’t doing it all along, because most of the things that you’ll get a job doing in our culture are not going to serve your life mission. Do a bare minimum. You’d be amazed. You’ll have the energy to be a cordial coworker.

That is my thing on do Less. Now, I am going to take some questions. Hang on. This requires opening my messages. Okay, Inspired Text says, “I love the idea of bare minimum living. I get stuck when thinking about my mission. I feel like so many things could be part of my mission. How do I get to my essential mission?” Okay, there’s a thing that I do where you go way up high like an airplane in your life and then you drop way down low and you are traveling on foot.

The airplane view goes, when you go to the airplane view, you look at your whole life and you say, “On the day I die when I’m 115 and it’s time to go and I look back and I say, ‘I did what I was meant to do in this world.'” Two things. How do you want the world to be different because you have lived in it? The other thing is how do you want your soul to be different, because it lived in this particular life, in this world at this time? For me, what it was, was how do I want the world to be different? I want the consciousness of humans to be closer to the consciousness of the divine.

I want us to be creative and self replenishing and restorative of the environment and one another, peace, love, all the good things. How do I want to be different, because I’ve lived in this world? I want to find a way to do this that is joyful. My belief is that my mission was to have joy and to bring joy. That’s another way of putting it. Now I just muddled around and muddled around and muddled around, but I just thought about it that way. “At the end of my life, how do I want the world to be different because I’ve lived in it? How do I want to be different, because I’ve lived in the world?”

Then look, I put that up and then I drop down and I say, “What can I do toward that now, today?” Right now, I’m going doing the Gathering Room. As soon as we’re done, I’m going to go in some way cruelly, but subtly punish my dogs for barking this entire time. I won’t punish them, I’ll just give them dirty looks. They won’t even know. I’ll do it from behind. Anyway, that’s my step forward.

One Big Happy Four says, “Do you have a process for narrowing your mission?” I love that you used the word narrow. Here’s another way you can go about it. You can walk through your life and say, “What gives me spoons?” This is the noticing phase. This is called the three Ns. Notice what gives you spoons. I see your questions, it gives me a spoon. I didn’t have many spoons most of my life, but when I see a question, it gives me a spoon. It’s like your energy of asking creates energy for me.

I notice certain things give me spoons and certain things take spoons away. Notice that. Then you narrow down the field, so you notice what gives you the most energy or what gives you the worst least energy and cut those things out. So you narrow, narrow, narrow to the things that you love most. I love a lot of things, but there are only a few things I can do and there’s less to do than I think. I’m going to narrow it down to the things I love, love, love.

Finally, at the end of all that, give it a name. I don’t mean to say, “Oh, I’ve realized that I’m a human relations coordinator,” or whatever. No, the thing that is going to serve your mission is going to be unique because you are unique and your life mission is unique. Mine got named life coach, which is not something that thrills me, but I can’t come up with a better option. See, I’m trying and I can’t, that’s all I can think of.

Somebody just sent me a life coaches are dorks Instagram, a comedian. I’m like, “Yeah, life coach sounds pretty dorky.” But hey, if I want to live joy, I want to bring joy, if they call it life coach, that’s a good enough name for me. Start noticing, then narrow, then name. Mona Care 64 says, “I get this now about the spoons at 59 years old. Is it too late for my mission?” It better not be, because I’m 60 and I just barely started. Seems like, yeah, you can start at 103.

You can start at any time. There’s a great story about a Chinese monk who went out and he meditated in the mountains until he was 80 years old and then he thought he was probably, he kind of was enlightened, he was awake. He came down at the age of 80 and started teaching and taught for 40 more years, until he was 120. If you’re 80 and you’re just thinking, “I think I’m ready to start,” you’re in good company. Yeah, it’s never too late.

Amor Toscana says, “How do I know when it’s enough?” You get tired, it’s no fun. That’s it. That’s it. It’s like, “Is this fun? Are my spoons draining? Okay, well, I can’t keep that up.” If you got good and sick, you would know. It’s like, “Ugh, not that. Not that. I really do have to keep myself just barely alive.” But if you’re exhausted, you stop right there. Same if you’re exhausted with an argument or like something I’m writing.

If it is exhausting me, it means I’m off on the wrong track and I need to get back too less so that I don’t write a whole bunch of the wrong words, just a few good ones. That’s what we want. It’s much easier. Holy Baby says, “How can we deal with the guilt of doing less?” Well, I can recommend some good cognitive behavioral therapy, or the Byron Katie work, or A-C-T, ACT therapy, where you just say, “All right, I feel guilty because I’m not doing more.” That presupposes this judgment.

“I should be doing more.” Then you examine that, to see if it’s integrity. “Is that absolutely true? Should I be doing more right now? Well, I can’t be doing anything than… No.” If it’s no, if you’re doing one thing and thinking you should be doing another thing, the problem is not with what you’re doing, it’s with what you’re thinking. There’s less to do than you think. When you have guilt, you take your thoughts apart, instead of doing 50 times as much work as any human being should be able to do.

You go on Instagram, you go on Facebook, you go on all the places, people are pretending to fit the cultural model of continuous productivity. You can’t do that, but you feel guilty if you don’t because you think that you’re supposed to do that much. Nobody does that much. People tell me I’ve done things. I’m like, “No, really, I do very little.” All right. Donna says, “What if your mission keeps changing, because you become interested in so much? Is the do too much, because there are so many wonderful things to do?”

Yes. I have severe ADD. I was born in the Chinese year of the tiger, but I always think I was born in the year of the Tigger, because I literally, I mean trying to get down to my little house where I do Zoom, to do this, I was distracted by probably 50 things. I really wanted to set up this bird watching camera, and I really wanted to finish this drawing I’ve been working on. I really, really wanted to write something down that I just thought of, and I really wanted to go do the laundry.

There are wonderful things to do in the world. Do yourself a favor, parrot favor, parrot down to four spoons. If you only add four spoons, what would you spend it on? Then if you’ve got spoons left after you’ve done those four things, do five, do six, do seven. Then you can go on. But do the first things first. Okay. Intuitive Nicki says, “How do you recognize the people who are right for you? I’m getting better, but I still seem to attract narcissistic jerks sometimes.”

Intuitive Nikki, you’re intuitive. You clearly recognize that these people are narcissistic jerks. If you sit quietly, you may realize that you pick it up really soon. I have had many, many, many clients who have had lots of bad relationships. If I sit with them and I say, “How are you doing?” They’re like, “Oh, I’m in another bad relationship, it’s been horrible for the last three years. We’ve been together for 10 years.” I say, “When did you notice the first little inkling, like, oh, jerk, narcissist.”

They invariably say, “The first day I met them or the day after.” You notice it really soon, and then you do more, because you think you should. But guess what? There’s a lot less to do than you think. The moment you notice the narcissistic jerks, because you can, and we all can, we all can. We’re just trained not to. The moment you notice it, just stop doing things for them. Ghost them. Don’t call them, don’t write to them, don’t show up for them. There are eight billion people in the world and they’re not all narcissists.

You’d be much better served with someone that you would enjoy. A narcissist will always tell you to do more, I promise. Okay, Toy Box says, “But what about FOMO? Fear of missing out. I have small kids and I kind of feel I have to do everything for them. Cooking, playing, swimming with them, Elf on the Shelf and even sewing.” I put a note about this in my little run sheet for this, because I have so much FOMO. FOMO stands for fear of missing out. But in my brain, I think it means flocks of magical otters.

Sorry, I’m back. I really feel like I want to do absolutely everything. Here’s what I’ve found. It takes very little doing to know what something feels like. The things that are not part of my actual mission, they may sound fun and I do them for a while and I enjoy them, but the spoon count doesn’t go up. It goes down. That, I think, is the force of the divine steering me back to what I’m supposed to do. But I’ve had the opportunity to experience tons of things in small doses, and really, I wanted the sample platter in life.

I didn’t go to the buffet and say, “I’m just going to eat the scrambled eggs, don’t bother me with everything else.” No, I’m going to take some of the pancakes, and some of the bagels with locks, and cream cheese. I’m going to do a little bit of everything. It was actually once I was with Byron Katie, my favorite spiritual teacher, and I was asking her, “Why we exist, since we don’t really have to?” She said, “I will show you.”

We were at a restaurant, she got a bagel and all these different toppings that you can put on a bagel, the cream cheese, but everything, like onions, and chives, and everything. Then she put everything on her one bagel slice, and then she cut it with a knife and fork, and she got this fork and she said, “Okay.” Then, it was too big to put it in her mouth. She put it down and sliced it in two. She said, “This changes everything.” Then, she ate it.

That was how she told me why we’re alive, because we’re here to taste everything and every little change brings on a new facet of existence. We are God humanning and God likes to do lots of things. I remember one time, okay, I’ll tell you something really crazy. One time I was skiing and I had skied by myself for three days. I was exhausted, my legs were chewed because I would ski and ski and ski, and I didn’t even stop for the lift. I resented stopping for the lift.

My legs were hamburger by the last day. I got up and I thought, “I feel inspired to go out and ski again, but I don’t think I can.” Something in me said, “Don’t try. Don’t do it. Let the God force have its fun on the mountain today.” I was like, “Okay, but I’m coming in, because I can barely walk.” I went out there and I stood at the top of a mountain and I said, “I’m not doing this.” I skied harder than I’ve ever skied for another for the whole day and the entire time I was like, “Okay, I’m not doing this. This is my higher self wanting to have fun with my body.”

This is after 12 years of lying around not being able to wiggle my toes. The spirit of you can get tons of experiences and take you to places in ways that you don’t even imagine possible. When you start living this way, you open the doors to the divine and it just floods into your life. It’s pure energy and it has massive FOMO. It wants to be everywhere. It is flocks of magical otters. Yes. The more you do, less than you think, the more your spirit does more than you think you can handle.

Okay? The Ashley Anna says, “What if we think doing the thing will get us where we want to go, but we don’t know if we want to do that thing?” Well, that’s just full of vim and compelling excitement, Ashley, Ashley Anna. If you’re sitting and going, “I don’t know. I think I will do this and it will go over there.” To me, that’s just not enough spoons to justify it. If you were seriously ill, would you get yourself out of bed to do that? Anything that you put on your schedule, you should have to get out of bed and do it, even if you’re serious, everything else is cream.

Everything else is unnecessary. This is just like, do what lights you up, not something, “I think it will. Maybe, but I don’t know if I want…” No, that’s not the right energy. The right energy, it’s a hell yes or it’s a no. Okay, and last, Shebe says, “How do we handle the instinct to do more when we’re anxious about our future?” Oh, my darlings, there is no such thing as an instinct to be anxious about the future. There are only thoughts about the future. Instinct is what’s born into us, right?

It’s our animal selves. Our animal selves don’t care. If my dogs cared about the future, they would stop barking because they would know that they’re going to get in really bad trouble as soon as I’m off this call. But they keep barking, because they are in joy and they are God being dogs, and they want to bark. Excuse me. Your instincts will take you into the here and now. They’ll give you an accurate read of the spoons that are in your body and in your mind and in your soul, and there will be no thoughts of what you have to do that’s so grievously, burdensome.

There will only be the joy of letting the divine move through you in a way that serves what you know to be your particular best mission. Yeah, I mean, do you get it right all the time? Of course not. It’s all about figuring it out as we go along. But we do it with joy. We do it for the fun of it. We do it for the love of it. We don’t do it because we think we have to. There is so much less to do than we think. I love you and I will be back in another week. I will meet you here on the Gathering Room. See you soon. Love you.

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