New Zealand Law Society - Keeping it simple

Keeping it simple

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“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone … the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials” — Lin Yutang

In a similar vein, we’re reminded sometimes that “less is more” or as a Latin teacher declared to me “festina lente” ... hasten slowly. Neither is a recipe for keeping it simple merely an ingredient.

Recently, I returned from six weeks work and travel in South East Asia. Despite a fairly full schedule, I felt free and in charge. There was less to think of, to take care of and few distractions. I returned home though to many commitments, to busyness and intrusions. In short – less space, more noise.

For a fortnight it felt like the place of constant overdrive that I “achieved” in my early thirties and for some years thereafter – a time when, with tremendous diligence, I ignored my “less is more” learning and my Latin master’s plea. Eventually there emerged a tipping point and with that a fear of what else might show up if I didn’t pay heed. I changed tack.

Being busy, living complicated lives is contagious. Yet, rarely does it serve any valuable, sustainable purpose. We mostly justify it, artfully selecting the benefits – often those of a material or unmet need type. We avoid undertaking a more honest cost-benefit, values inclusive or self-worth based evaluation. There is a cost to this “glossing over”.


I quit legal practice 10 years ago. I did so less because of the long hours or pressure (I could have made other changes to address those), but more because I had other things I wanted to pursue. I remember, though, my astonishment – one might say recognition – at my children’s response. They were rapt. I had worried they would feel regret at Dad giving up the “perks” of law. They were chuffed, though, that they would get to see more of me. In that profoundly grounding and heartfelt moment I recognised the value in my choice of a new, more straightforward, time friendly path.

The far from simple life

Too much of everything, including too much complexity, too many “good” ideas, too many projects, too lacking in reality, too much people pleasing; eg, being the nice guy or the responsible one.

Or it might be too few boundaries, not enough planning nor sufficient downtime nor the addressing of tolerations (those countless task or commitments we justify, yet which are a burden and are not actually necessary; eg, the additional committee role).

A far from simple life is often characterised by “could”, “should” or “I have to” laced language or behaviour. We know it and it’s revealed to us when we have time out and we feel the palpable relief of having much needed space. The contrast between the demands and frenetic pace and then the place in which they’re lifted reveals the gap between what is and what might be.

Underpinning much of the above is a lack of self-awareness and vulnerability. If we actually STOP and experience what’s going on, really feel it – then we get to see ourselves and the world through other more functional lenses. It ups the prospect of our making more life affirming choices. Choices which have at their heart a commitment to oneself first and foremost (self-ish as opposed to selfish), and which enable a simpler, healthier, more interdependent relationship between oneself and others.

Making a shift

For many, making a decision to simplify and then progressing towards that goal makes a good difference. Getting on that path – without undue emphasis on a particular destination but instead a beacon of sorts – is satisfying in itself.

There are at least four stepping stones to a simpler path. They are:

A strong personal foundation

I’ve written before about the importance of a strong personal foundation (See LawTalk 821, 21 June 2013 pp 16). Suffice to say we need capacity and wherewithal for change. Much of that comes from addressing key personal foundation areas, the lack of which are the death knell for the simpler personal or work life. Personal foundation areas which build momentum towards or contribute to a simpler personal or work life include:

  • having stronger boundaries;
  • eliminating “tolerations” (matters that are a recurring and unnecessary burden);
  • ensuring all needs (psychological, emotional and physiological) are met;
  • having higher personal standards;
  • choosing a positive and yet grounded outlook;
  • identifying and aligning with core life values;
  • being of high integrity; and
  • developing good relationships, especially with key family members.

Good time (or self) management

Much has been written about time management. Surely good time management is the answer to a simpler experience? It has its place and yet many complain that it doesn’t work. Part of the problem is that much traditional time management focuses on managing time to please others, often paradoxically to prop up a need for self-approval. In contrast a more direct and functional focus on self-management – from which good time management may result – is preferable.

We benefit more from understanding and honouring those things that we value, are meaningful and important to us than forever seeking the ongoing stimulation of – sometimes addiction to – task or event “repetition” which much time management is about. It seeks to shorten the gap between events.

Time management can result in an endless chasing of the tail, demanding we be ever more organised and efficient to control external goings on. We only rarely succeed in this tiresome scramble. We invariably pay a price. Greater gains are made in returning to an inside out approach starting with what really matters to ourselves and to what is within our control.

A problem for many is the To Do list. It may be a step in the right direction as a planning tool. Yet it can become master rather than servant. A sounder approach is to schedule.

First, review your To Do list. Quite ruthlessly decide what YOU must do, what you can delegate and what can you drop altogether; ie, typically what’s been on the list for a long time and ignored.

Secondly, take the items you will DO and schedule them in your diary. Decide how long they will take and then multiply that time by three. Yes, three. It’s a delight to under promise and over achieve, rather than the reverse. In the spare time that’s then available one gets to attend to other tasks; and to feel thoroughly on top of things. Life’s simpler.

Another time management tool to help simplify things is to combine activities, just as we might do when we’re gardening. This has all the benefits – all in one – of physical exercise, an improvement in your environment, a lift in spirit etc. Or a combined activity might involve chewing the fat with a colleague while walking to work rather than in between meetings.

Self and others

Much of our busyness and overly complicated personal and work lives is a result of having too many commitments or obligations to others, often a product of valuing others without giving ourselves a healthier look in. We forget that we’re merely “a piece of the Continent, a part of the main”. We carry on at times as if we need to be the whole shebang.

To counter this with a more functional “dance” between ourselves and others:

  • Lift one’s self awareness and be more vulnerable (Refer LawTalk 820, 7 June 2013, p 18). Self-awareness has one better appreciate one’s needs and aspirations. It supports more conscious, perspective driven choice making.
  • Practice empathy towards oneself to counter the shame of not being enough, often showing up as over achieving or people pleasing. Professor Brene Brown of the University of Houston has raised awareness of the distorted view many have of what is enough. We’re forever wanting and seeking more or better. There is a culture of scarcity, a belief that we don’t have enough, are not good enough, safe enough and so on.
  • Learn how to avoid being overly self-absorbed or consumed by others, but rather how to reside with flexibility and conscious choice on a continuum of self and other.

A final word on “self” in the context of choosing a simpler path. Some suggest (Joan Didion, Carl Jung and Parker J Palmer) that keeping on nodding terms with who we used to be and who we could be will lessen the needlessly complex contest between frustration and satisfaction.

Principle and practicality over personality

Some of what gets in the way of the simpler path is being trapped in our personality and avoiding a more character based approach informed by time proven principles. It’s a hangover from many 20th century personality driven self development programmes. From the 1990s Stephen Covey and others advocated a return to the more historically favoured character/principle approach preferred before the 20th century. Covey’s ideas include a focus on:

  • growing one’s circle of influence (what’s within your ready control) rather than your circle of concern (what’s not); and
  • what’s important and non urgent, more so than the urgent and/or unimportant.

Another aspect of this is to put greater emphasis – time and effort or application wise – on an integrity driven, as opposed to needs or wants heavy, life. This means having integrity be first and foremost, including being true to self and respectful of others – at the heart of which is being true to oneself first – and also focusing on what “works”; ie, is in and has integrity.

It’s about having an integrity focus as paramount and then secondly, but importantly, getting one’s needs met. These are about one’s functionality and getting one’s legitimate needs met, so that one has the wherewithal to act with integrity.

Finally, one has a smaller space or focus left over for satisfying wants, including desires, comforts, maybe the frivolous. This approach might seem old hat – and yet it works.

Other principle driven practices are to focus on:

  • the why (the purpose or the point of) to drive the where to, the how and the what for our goals and actions; and
  • being mindful and present; in essence to focus in a particular way – formally or informally – in the present, on purpose and non judgementally.

Choose harmony

An idea gaining traction is to choose work/life harmony over work/life balance.

Many find the latter impossible, the former more achievable. It involves an interplay between core components of life and work; for example, physical, financial, mental, spiritual and relational.

Instead of pursuing balance as the ultimate goal, we focus on these core components, but give greater focus to what is most important at any one time – bearing in mind the twists and turns one experiences in work/life. However, our greater focus on any one component MUST be finite, and we must communicate to others we are in relationship with what we anticipate is next.

This emphasis is on what is harmonious (a very real interplay between life’s components, giving greater emphasis to what is important and values driven as life unfolds). It’s rather like the harmony aimed for by an orchestra or choir or the way in which a well engineered machine relates to and adapts to its environment to ensure integrity and optimal performance. Even more evolved than work/life harmony are the ideas put forward by David Whyte on work/life integration described well in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship.

Principle is fine but we need to ground it. Ways in which we can do so are:

  • To plan – and to have planning be as regular and consistent as many self-care daily activities. It brings the future into the present and with that we have more control and a better shot at having things be simpler, more certain. Many plan daily or undertake longer term planning. Weekly planning done at the end of the week for the coming week is valuable too.
  • To replace old unhelpful habits with better ones (Refer LawTalk 846, 18 July 2014, p 20).
  • To cut out projects or responsibilities – often a should, could, want or toleration – that is not required. By not required, I mean things that are in the “wish for” category, are past their use by date or simply there because we feel we have to pursue them.
  • To eliminate, delegate or systemise time consuming or inefficient tasks or processes.
  • To schedule the To Do list.
  • In shared aim relationships – such as that of professional and client – to counter a tendency for a client to shut down or the professional to hide behind expertise or jargon by having the communication more open. Open questions help in this regard and with greater transparency comes an ability to make the way forward simpler, more straightforward.
  • To actively “clean sweep” all the clutter and bother from one’s life and work.
  • To schedule time daily for oneself – as if you were your own client – and to have yourself be accountable to (but supported, too) by both yourself and someone else.


In my usual, somewhat indulgent way, I have written far more than is necessary, forever caught up in the need to describe fully and in a less than straightforward way. I can at least conclude with something simple and contrasting to illustrate my message, a statement that captures an essential ingredient and perhaps the paradox of living and working simply.

“Life is so short. We should all move more slowly” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Martin Wilson is the principal of Selfmade Coaching ( His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as Group Manager Communications and Human Resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a past director of the Australasian arm of the International Coach Federation. Martin works with leaders, managers and professionals in both the public and private sectors.

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