Ari Meisel’s “Less Doing”: Skip the 20th-Century Work Hangover

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023

Ari Meisel battled Crohn’s disease and won. That’s an insane feat, and while fighting the autoimmune disease, he also developed Less Doing, a general efficiency consultancy service rooted in healthy, sustainable practice.

He is now an achievement architect and TEDx lecturer, advising high-level executives and business people about how to do more with less. His consulting and coaching works from a holistic perspective, based around the revelation that high productivity and free time need not be antagonists to one another.  

Meisel is no doubt an intriguing business figure worth thinking about. Not convinced?

Here’s what makes Meisel’s philosophy on work so great: everything he preaches goes against the normal know-how we hear about hard work and success.

The Less Doing philosophy offers up an antidote for the toxic, dominant idea of “working yourself to death” that underpins contemporary life. As globalization and remote employment continues to make the world more and more competitive, one line of thought has suggested the only solution is to face it strong and just keep working harder and harder.

Less Doing proposes another solution. One that gives individuals and enterprises the tools to optimize, automate, and outsource everything. The idea is to help your business scale in a pain-free way by removing all the bottlenecks.

How Ari Meisel came up with Less Doing

Meisel graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business in 2003, concentrating in Real Estate and Entrepreneurship and minoring in Art History and Psychology. Afterward, he went on to redevelop disused heritage buildings, converting them into offices and other commercial and residential spaces.

His first project was creating luxury condominiums out of an abandoned cigar factory in Binghamton, New York. At just 20 years old, Meisel upcycled the factory into a $3 million dollar project. Not too bad.

A bit later, he got into green architecture, working on an ever-expanding roster of development projects in upstate New York and in the Hamptons. Things were going well, but then they weren’t. In 2006, a string of bad deals landed him in a few million dollars of debt.

If that wasn’t already bad enough, around that same time, Meisel developed Crohn’s disease. He was put on a dizzyingly complex cocktail of dozen daily medications and was in and out of the hospital. Meanwhile, his real estate career was in danger of completely tanking because he was too sick to work more than an hour or so each day.

Ari Meisel was in serious trouble. As far as he could tell, all the stress, long hours, and body maltreatment he put himself through triggered the incurable disease. His lifestyle of working constantly, drinking, and grabbing less-than-healthy meals to fuel his high-powered daily routine had caught up with him and compromised his health.

In autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system becomes confused and attacks the tissues it was supposed to defend. There are many kinds, with multiple sclerosis and diabetes being two of the most familiar to us. Basically, autoimmune diseases are differentiated from infections or inflammations by their severe and ongoing nature.

This is scary because medical experts still don’t really know the exact mechanism by which stress triggers an autoimmune disease, yet those of us in the world of common sense definitely understand the link.

Some people get chronic indigestion just hearing the news of vengeful in-laws coming for a lengthy visit, while students get strep throat or bronchitis on the burnout of winter exam season. Take that kind of stress and stretch it out from days to months and years and you have a recipe for a serious health issue of massive description.

As far as Crohn’s disease goes, another part of the equation is gut flora or the bacteria that filters and processes the stuff we eat. When someone has Crohn’s, their intestinal tract becomes prone to constant, extreme inflammation, which impacts your ability to digest food and absorb any food’s nutrients.

Why is this important? Because Crohn’s is the kind of disease that may not be obvious from the outside but is extremely debilitating, especially if you’re trying to run a business, or quite simply, work any job.

Doctors told Meisel the disease was incurable and he would have to cope with it for the rest of his life. Meisel decided to ignore this diagnosis and set about trying to cure himself.

To get healthy, Meisel biohacked the heck out of his lifestyle and stayed consistent. He started to eat lots of vegetables, took natural supplements, began meditating, practiced yoga, exercised, slept more, and keep track of it all.

The 80/20 Split

As far as his working life went, Meisel cut his workload down 80%, implementing an 80/20 split of life/work, which he holds to this day.

By spending more time with family and doing other things that remind most people how good it feels to be alive, Meisel resolved to be very successful while also being very human.

He took to the idea of Parkinson’s Law, which suggests we will use up all the time allocated to us to finish a task. If we get one hour to do something, we do it in an hour, but if we get four hours, we’ll probably stretch the task out to deliver it three hours and fifty-nine minutes later.

Inspired by the adage, a key to Meisel’s success was tracking when his productivity was most successful so that he could pinpoint the best times to work.

It may not sound like rocket science, but it’s a strangely elusive truth — if we can finish things in a timely manner, we’ll have more free time and having free time relieves stress, thus resulting in a healthier and happier human being.

After a few years of fine-tuning his lifestyle, doctors declared Meisel free of the disease. In 2011, he celebrated his hard-earned clean bill of health and went on to produce The Art of Less Doing.

Making sense of Ari Meisel and the Less Doing philosophy

For us schmucks at co-working spaces and start-ups, kvetching about this and that, what does the Less Doing philosophy really entail for the level of day-to-day work?

Well, one of Meisel’s key ideas is that software tools can do a lot of life’s grunt work.

He realized you can now automate “low-end’ activities like email reminders, follow-ups, payments, etc., significantly freeing up time to do more productive and creative things.

Data collection, analysis, and tracking of one’s work can make us more relaxed and effective people, channeling our energies towards achievements, rather than busywork. Meisel’s method only reinforces why AI is trending so hard in every facet of business.

Taking tedious stuff out of your day will make you dread work less, and eliminate the little stresses that percolate under the surface and never quite go away. It’s an idea similar to the act of decluttering a desk full of old sales reports, random notes and crushed LaCroix cans to make you work better.

But competition is real and as the world of work moves towards globalization and remote preferability– the act of decluttering your standard office desk might not even be an option.

Taking that idea and running with it, Fiverr and some other freelance platforms have based their ‘edgy’ marketing appeal on the archetype of the manic worker, who valiantly does battle for lords and vassals by “eating a coffee for lunch,” then staying up all night to meet last minute deadlines.

Oh and also, no benefits and lower pay because you’re competing across the world without reference to the local cost of living — wow, sounds like la dolce vita, sign me up!

Does anyone really want to live like that?

Meisel certainly doesn’t, and neither do I. How can you be creative, clear-thinking and present with friends, family, and other important people when you’re always slammed?

Less Doing and the past and future of work

Resting at work is normal as workloads ebb and flow. We need time to collect our energies — similarly to how when you go swimming in the ocean, you’ll sometimes want to float and recover strength, rather than…die.

Likewise, for the cognitive labor of jobs in IT, e-commerce, tech, or any other number of white-collar professions, it’s counter-intuitive to grind constantly.

Big deadlines do come up, but we can deal with them when they arrive.

Here’s another fun analogy: farmers toil long hours during planting and harvest, mend the ol’ chicken-wire and do the things that need to be done in a timely manner — they don’t pretend to look busy to pad out a day. They’re doing exactly what they need to be doing in the time there is to do it.

Just because most of us have to work for a living, doesn’t mean the experience of work needs to consume so much mental energy.

Of course, there are some ideas in Meisel’s holistic philosophy that we might find trouble striving for. For a lot of us trying to make it in this wicked game of corporate shenanigans, the idea of working 80% less and still making rent/mortgage, paying off internet and cell phone bills while also eating sub-par seems a bit fanciful and very much not plausible for most.

While Meisel was in debt and stressed when diagnosed with Crohn’s, he was already a generally successful and well-connected businessperson. So we can only assume he was in a better starting position to retreat from the grind.

But the philosophy still stands. Whether you have the means to cut your workload down 80%, every person has the agency to decide how much work weighs on their personal life.

That being said, society can absolutely make some changes to increase the relevancy of Meisel’s philosophy. The increasing possibility we may see basic income in our lifetime does offer another interesting angle to considering the work-life ratio.

What would we do if we didn’t need to go to an office Monday to Friday? How would we feel and think if we didn’t have to develop the mental calluses needed to endure the everyday indignities of office politics?

You know, the kind of mental calluses like scrolling Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, et al., hanging around third wave coffee shops, and compulsively going on Tinder dates to wine bars. Will we spend our precious years on earth doing just that or will we choose to use our time for more noble pursuits?

My guess is that quite a few of us will end up wanting to work and do stuff anyway, but working life will look more like Meisel’s cut-down, spaced-out schedule.

The magic power hour

In an age of mobile work and rapid communication, the 40-hour workweek already feels like a bad 20th-century hangover. As more and more studies are noting, 3 or 4 days a week might be just the ticket.

Commuting to work at standardized times with the mass transit sardine cans and rush hour highway traffic; it all truly implements a very massified, outdated idea.

When you have to drive, bus, or take a train 30 minutes (or more) to get to the office, you sometimes feel like you “did something” just by making it there. It’s a questionable sense of accomplishment based on the thought process that you “commute” (the precursor to starting and leaving work), so you are now “at work,” which is where work “happens.”

On this issue of scheduling and hours, Meisel’s philosophy seems very on point. He suggests we track what times of the week we’re at our most productive and then plan around them.

We all have our power hours, as well as our write-off hours (also known as all of Friday afternoon), so we should base our work schedule around when we can do the most in the least amount of time.

In the USA and any number of other staunchly capital-driven countries, there is a sense of work as being the most important thing you can do. If you try to live differently, you might hear “get a real job!” Then again, if you end up working too hard, that might change to “get a life!”

A lot of our attitude towards jobs, and what constitutes real work, is not valid anymore.

The Baby Boomer mentality of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ continues to reign supreme due to their dominant position in society, but a generation after 1980s deindustrialization and globalization, things have moved on.

Our social values and institutions haven’t caught up, and a lot of younger people are paying for that with their physical and mental well-being.

One size (does not) fit all

With all that in mind, Meisel’s philosophy of Less Doing definitely offers a nice jumping off point for re-organizing your working life.

Meisel’s Less Doing gets that we need to keep our health and realize our goals, rather than cramming ourselves into a bizarre one-size-fits-all mold of work-life.

By the way, if you’re looking for some airplane reading, Meisel also wrote a book detailing the Less Doing philosophy.

While his book, company, and general philosophy may not be the cure-all its PR claims it to be, I certainly think they have some good ideas.

I also have to tip my hat to Ari Meisel for his overall entrepreneurial prowess, incredible willpower, and rational and reasonable work-life philosophy.

It’s nice to hear a successful CEO and entrepreneur say that he probably could make more money but chooses not to because he doesn’t want to hate his life. I mean, the man has a wife he met when they were kids, four children, two cats, and a dog — it’s almost too wholesome.

I don’t necessarily think we all have to mimic every facet of Meisel’s squeaky-clean lifestyle to succeed sustainably. Still, even the most cynical among us have a thing or two to learn from him.