Trusting Your Instincts

April 12, 2019 Updated: May 6, 2019

When we consume less—not just fewer tangible things but less news and chatter—and don’t try to figure out every detail ahead of time, we are able to listen to our instincts more. Three philosophers talk about the benefits of this.

‘Less information means more wisdom.’—Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is a British philosopher who advocates for less information, fewer books, and less news. He believes we should return to and reread centuries-old books and texts, for example, with great ideas: quality over quantity.

“We pay a price for all the information we consume these days: We know less. We are constantly distracted by our phones, and it is nearly impossible to concentrate anymore, sit still, and think without the urge to reach for our phone.

“Beneath this urge to constantly check for updates lies a deeper layer that is so defining for our lives these days: the feeling that we always have to be up-to-date on the latest news. We have the feeling that something is always happening somewhere in the world that we need to know about. And if we don’t know it, we think we are missing something important and won’t be capable of understanding ourselves and the world around us.”

Book Diet

“This is a new concept, historically speaking. For centuries, the things we found important were written in—often religious—books. The great truths and the indispensable insights were on parchment or paper, or were even carved in stone. For Buddhists, nearly nothing has changed since 500 BCE, when Buddha was alive. The same applies to Christian, Jewish, or other sources of wisdom which were often recorded around (or before) the beginning of our era.

“Religious books are thought to contain eternal wisdom and truths which we are continually reminded of by an array of rituals. How different this is from today’s society, where we have to find our way around all the information that comes at us from so many sources. We have to filter the ideas that matter. Because the quantity of information is so overwhelming, we are not capable of making sense of it all. A wealthy family in England in 1250 might have had three books in its possession: a Bible, a collection of prayers, and another of lives of the saints. These books were cherished and reread over and over.

“An average student today reads 800 books before graduating from college. I am in favor of an information diet: fewer books, and less news. Instead, we should buy a few nice, high-quality books that we can reread. We may end up consuming less but will amass more wisdom than when we sit and stare at a screen all day, waiting for more news.”

‘We know so much we’re afraid to do it wrong.’ —Coen Simon

Philosopher Coen Simon sees life as an unchoreographed dance: We don’t have to think about the exact moves we’re going to make ahead of time. We should more often try to trust what will come in our daily lives.

“People have the tendency to order the world according to their own interpretations, impressions, and wishes. Thinking lends itself extremely well to this. These days, we give a great deal of thought to who we are. We can’t find out what we really want and ‘go for it’ until we have thought about who we are at our core. This isn’t how life works, though; the world doesn’t adapt to our thoughts. It just does its own thing.”

Not the World Itself

“Our preference for thinking is actually quite logical. After all, thinking is safer than doing, to a certain extent. Doing always requires a risk. We can know everything, but if we really want to do something, we have to take a leap into the unknown. We like to trust knowing and thinking, and don’t really have many direct experiences.

“An example of this is childrearing. We read everything we can about what makes children tick, and scientific theories about what’s good for them are published in rapid succession. We know so much to the point where we have become overly cautious and are afraid of doing it wrong, even though doing it is the only way to find out how something really works. Thinking, in this way, is fooling us. We imagine the world in a certain way, and this is how we make it comprehensible, but it is important to realize that this is just our personal take on it.

“Language is also just a way of portraying the world, painting a picture of a world that is simpler than it actually is. On one hand, this is useful because this enables us to talk and think about it. However, we mustn’t forget that our impression of the world is not the world itself. We can’t keep track of life, and we can’t really truly know it.

“We would be better off thinking less and just being, and being more open. Try to see life as a free-form dance. The dance floor is constantly changing. Our movements depend on the rhythm, the people, and the space. All of these elements push our thinking to the background. Then something happens, and we react. If we could approach life the same way, we don’t have to (over)think so much and we can have more trust in what will come.”

‘We may end up knowing less, but we’ll be living that much more.’—Roman Krznaric

Australian-born British philosopher Roman Krznaric suggests that if we stop permitting ourselves to be constantly distracted and focus—really focus—on the here and now, things will start to affect us again.

“We are so inundated by digital information these days that we attempt to invent efficient systems to deal with it all: smart ways of filtering our email or rationing our social media time, apps that help us tag and organize articles we want to read, or catching up on podcasts while jogging or checking newsfeeds while on the toilet.

“As we strive to schedule our time even more meticulously, and tick items off our to-do lists, we keep planning and planning and looking ahead while continuing to fall behind. New information presents itself constantly and we can’t keep up. We have almost forgotten how to just do something, be free and spontaneous, enjoy the moment and immerse ourselves in the present. After all, our idea of ‘now’ is constantly interrupted by the lives and information of the potentially millions of other people all over the world who are all fighting for our limited amount of attention.”

Back in the Now

“So how do we reclaim the present? Through mindfulness, by paying attention to what is there. We can direct our full attention to what is happening in the here and now. Whether this is a text message from a friend, the street we’re walking down, or the child that is trying to tell us something.

“Mindfulness prevents us from getting caught up in the flow of information we are constantly being bombarded with. When we do this, the thing we are focusing on really does touch or influence us. We may end up knowing less, but we’ll be living that much more. Who knows? Maybe we’ll hear real birds singing again instead of allowing ourselves to get distracted by a 280-character tweet.”

Excerpted from “The Big Book of Less: Finding Joy In Living Lighter” by Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst (Workman). Copyright 2019.