Meaning Mondays: The Less is More Edition

Did you ever hear the story about National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg?

Back in the fall of 1994, he got tired of the grind. The endless treadmill. The pressure to produce more.

So what did he do? He hightailed it back home, to the Boundary Waters area of Northern Minnesota. In that wild and beautiful landscape, he embarked on an experiment that would change his life and work.

Instead of shooting roll after roll of film, as he had on many other projects, he decided this time to take just one photograph each day for 90 days. And he declared that at the end of every day, there would be no do-overs. No regrets.

He book-ended his experiment with the fall equinox on one side and the winter solstice on the other.

The result was an impressive collection of photographs, and a show called Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey.

I had the pleasure of catching it on exhibit at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in summer 1998. And as stunning as the photographs were, if I hadn’t known about the story behind them, I wouldn’t have been nearly as mesmerized on my walk through the gallery.

Because it’s a great story. One that has much to teach us.

Apparently, many people have reacted this way, sharing with Brandenburg that his experiment touched them and made them think about their own lives. In fact, during an interview with Kari Knutson, he said: “I don’t think it was the photography that moved people. It was the story.”

And as I make my way through a year of Meaning Mondays, it’s a story that has come back to knock at the edges of my consciousness for another look.

Of course, it has applications to creativity. There’s certainly wisdom in placing limitations on ourselves in order to enhance creativity.

But I have a hunch it also applies to life in general, since many of us have been in Brandenburg’s shoes, feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and spread too thin.

Kind of like when the mayonnaise jar is pretty much empty, but we go there one more time. And the paltry bit of mayo is not nearly enough to cover two slices of bread. So the sandwich ends up being dry. Sticking to our throats.

Just as life can be dry when we’ve spread ourselves too thin.

Another way of life, though, glimpsed during Brandenburg’s 90-day journey, requires more deliberation. Stopping. Noticing. Bringing full awareness and intentionality to each day.

That being said, I know the world at large doesn’t function this way. We can’t go to the boss and say, “Gee, today I think I’ll talk to just one customer. I’ll focus all my attention on that person, and give her the best service possible.”

Nah, I don’t think that would go over too well.

Yet, in all of our days, there is probably room for some of this. Personally, I can imagine a handful of opportunities to put this philosophy into practice right away.

For my garden, I could plant one perennial each day rather than all of them at once.

For my business, I could reach out to one person each day.

For my writing, I could set aside one hour each day.

For my relationship, I could practice mirroring once each day.

For my decorating projects, I could sew one pillow each day.

Yes, I could slow down, and do one thing per day. Sink into it. Do it well, but also be content with good enough. Then move on. And do one thing the next day. And again the next.

There’s some delicious irony here. I suspect that slowing down to do just one thing, doing less, actually results in more. Not only more time for play. But literally more productivity. More accomplished, over the long haul.

What about you? If you had the chance to do one thing per day for 90 days, what would it be? And would you even want to try an experiment like this?

Which raises even further questions:

Is less really more?

Or is less just less?

And is more really less?

Or perhaps, is more simply more?

OK, now I’ve managed to thoroughly confuse myself! So you know what? I think I’ll just hightail it over to my little spot in the woods, where I spend the last week of each month mostly unplugged.

Last time I went I turned off comments, seeing as how I wouldn’t be around much to chat with you. But this time I’m going to mix it up, and leave comments on.

I’m intrigued to hear what you have to say about less is more. So if you’re game, please comment away!



22 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: The Less is More Edition

  1. I do this when I am on staycation from work. Time off can end up being more hectic than going to work, and that’s not good, in my book. So, I limit what I set out to do each day. Somewhere between one and three things, with at least one completely unscheduled day. If I accomplish those few things, I am content, and they don’t have to be perfect (unless I am writing). That way, stuff I neglect when I am working gets done, but I don’t feel pressured.

    PS–there is a new story at Night Blooms.

  2. Less is more. It has to be because as a certain famous book says: “What does it profit a man to gain the world if he loses his soul?” Well, something like that. 😛

    In other words, you can’t have it all. A misplaced sense of entitlement can convince you otherwise, but you have to run yourself ragged to get even a fraction of what you think you are owed in life… so why not be kinder to yourself and just breathe easy now?

    That’s my take anyway. Now, if only I’d live according to it and stop being a hypocrite. 😛

  3. Patty,

    I like the challenge of one photograph a day! That, however, would be very hard for me to do. When it comes to photography, I believe in the saying, “more is better!” Thank goodness, we live in the digital time.

    However, I doubt I could ever do what Jim Brandenberg did. I’d end up cheating because the shot I took that day was blurry or the bird flew out the picture…perhaps THIS is the downside of digital film:~)

    I do get the idea and I sort of like what Shay said…limiting how much you do. Odd, however, that “limiting” our activities is something we even have to consider doing. Perhaps, we need to reconsider the meaning of productivity???

  4. I love Jim Brandenburg – he’s a local Minnesotan hero/celebrity/advocate. His work so beautifully captures our nature here, and I adore the story about his 90 days.

    This is a difficult question. It would take incredible discipline to do something like he did, just one thing for 90 days. But I do see the point, that focusing on fewer things makes us more productive and better at those things. I need to work on this: less multi-tasking and more focus.

  5. I love what you shared here today. The story is what sells. I have noticed this on American Idol, it is not always the most talented person towards the end who gets the votes, it is rather often the person who has a good story and who can represent that story through there brief moments on the air.
    There is no doubt that in most cases less is more. When we let go of the outcome we also create and experience more. Great post, thanks for sharing your keen minds eye.

  6. Hi Patty, I find your taking the last week of each month off very inspiring.

    I think the less is more philosophy applies to possessions, mindless jibber jabber, bad tv, bad media, bs work, etc. But I think some people really thrive on doing a lot of things at the same time; that’s their natural rhythm. And others, those who have taken on a mission such as Dr. Mukwege who spends every waking moment caring for his patients, I think he should diversify by getting a hobby or something.

    For me personally, I like what you say about bringing full awareness and intentionality to each day. Yet I also know that so much of the texture/volume of my days comes from the impromptu play with husband and son, the surprise call, the great news, the unintended meeting. I like having a few different things (planned and unplanned) to do that satisfy my various needs and there are many days when I do my darndest to pack it all in and feel great at the end of the day. It’s very possible I’m completely missing your message here…thanks for provoking thought.

  7. I love this, Patty. Years ago, I read about someone who took one Polaroid (remember those?) photo every day. I started doing that, and pasting them in a journal. It served as a bit of a focus or structure for the day, as I recall. If I hadn’t taken a photo by the time I went to bed, I had to quick take a picture of my hand or my bedside table. But usually I had taken one long before that. And it served as a visual journal of my days that summer–the day trips I took with my kids, the blurry shot of the writing project I was working on. Fabulous. Thanks for reminding me of the value of such things.

  8. More less 🙂 I enjoyed reading about Jim’s experiment. A commitment like that is making yourself vulnerable to the critic… it’s a super way to challenge yourself. I love the idea. I would spend my 90 days writing for 90 minutes a day. And I ‘should’ already be doing that… er I want to be doing that.

  9. If we take the one photo idea a bit further, we have one life, we have one year, we have one moment, the present one. You cannot have more, you cannot have less, so I better be there and nowhere else.
    Have a great string of present moments, one at the time and I am sure you will be fully satisfied, no more no less.
    Do you notice I loved your musings. xox Wilma and I am sure you will love your time in th woods.

  10. This is an interesting idea. I believe less is more depending on what it is that each seeks. I keep my daughter’s schedule as uncluttered as possible so that she has more time to create and to play. We keep the TV off throughout the work week and often all weekend – less TV time means more play or creativity or time together.
    I am working on taking that much more time to hear her – not just listen but hear what she is saying an engage more actively.
    However, if we want more money (and don’t want to reduce spending) we have to work more. If we want a better title or more responsibility at work, might we have to do more, spend more hours, put in more detail? Or is that just the story we tell ourselves?
    Perhaps it is the person we want to be and the life we want to live that defines whether less is more?

    What a wonderful challenge – though I like what Wilma said too and Tony… and you have interesting commenters!

  11. I am torn on the whole less is more. I would rather see the “to do” list with too many things on it and know what was coming than with just what might be doable in a certain time frame. Does that make sense?

  12. If I am going to do this, I need to do something I am already doing but not being present at. I don’t want to add a duty to my daily life at the moment. I think I will slow down when putting my daughter to bed. To remember this is a special time together and not just a duty. She is 5 1/2 and really into me reading chapter books right now. [Deep breath] Ok, I need this.
    Thank you Patty (again)

  13. Patty –

    As always, great questions and beautifully written. I’m not sure that less is always more. For me it comes down to focus and flow. If we doing the right things with authenticity then the results are phenomenal. It means letting go of quantity for quality of input. The results will then be as they are. I like your idea of picking the high quality activities and doing them well. Definitely an anti-dote to 21st Century overload. Great post.


  14. Hi Patty! Well this was fabulous! Great food for thought. And I have food on my brain a lot as I take my courses to get certified in nutrition. Do I think less is more? Absolutely! And I will segue that right into food(s) – we eat way more than is required to run our bodies and the quality of what we eat is generally pathetic. My pantry looks empty (the less) compared to our old way of eating – yet what is THERE is really quality – the more part, more nutritious!

    Just like we waste a lot of time doing stuff that really truly doesn’t amount to anything, we also eat that way! Paring down overall is a good thing!

  15. Hey Everybody – Hello from Patty! Just popping in for a second to say thanks for leaving all your wonderful comments. I found a wireless outpost here in the woods, and even though I can’t respond to each of you individually, I just wanted you to know how much I’ve enjoyed reading them. Have a great rest of the week.

  16. I can only answer for me and yes less is more. I like the story and would love to see the exhibit. I’m going to follow your links. The idea of the 90 day challenge excites me so I’m going to give it some thought and let you know what I come up with.

    The more I want less of anything it turns out the more I have of something else. I think it’s a rhythmn of some kind for all of us like Belinda says. Everyone’s rhythm is differenet.

  17. One thing a day for 90 days? Hmmm… I’d paint something. One painting a day. A doodle, maybe. No, that’s just a warm-up. I’d write. Stream of conciousness writing till I found a piece of something that might make a difference. One nugget a day. No, that’s another warm-up.

    I’d do both. Paint something, wonder about and write something. Then draw connections between the two as I found them.

    Wow, I’ve been reading several of your posts this morning and could spend the day here. But think I’d better go paint something, write something……………

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by Barb. Your painting/wondering/writing idea has a beautiful flow to it!

  18. Pingback: Meaning Mondays: Creative Chick Meets Warrior Woman Edition « Why Not Start Now?

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