Essentially Less (2023) isn’t a summary based on a book, it is the book. In a time when our attention is becoming a crucial and contested resource, it makes a case for the importance of focusing on what’s essential.
Introduction: Condensed information.
Table of Contents
“Essentially Less” is based on our very first original summary called “Wesentlich weniger” by German journalist Dirk von Gehlen, which was published on June 30, 2023. It raises important questions about the nature of non-fiction literature. We believe that it might be interesting to our English-speaking users, too. That’s why we translated it into English. We hope you enjoy reading and listening.
— the Editorial Team
This summary isn’t a book summary; it is the book.
Having done extensive research on the influence of the internet age on culture, I’m convinced that in today’s world, attention is the most important resource because attention takes up time, and time is limited. When the midnight bell tolls, there’s not a single minute you can carry over to the next day – no matter how much money you have or how well-organized you are. The counter always resets to exactly 24 new hours.
Now, the purpose of this summary isn’t only to focus your attention on the very topic of attention itself but also to explore ways of protecting it. This is an experiment, and it’s likely there’ll be many more such experiments in the future: content formats that are to traditional books what singles are to entire albums or TED talks are to long-form reading. The condensed information they contain will enable you to invest your money in saving time. The more these texts are reduced to the essential, the more valuable they’ll be because that’s what the emerging attention economy is all about – essentially less.
There are alternatives to the quantity-value principle
An old amphitheater on the outskirts of a populous city: this is where German author Michael Ende’s fantasy novel Momo is set. It’s the story of a little girl fighting against the Grey Gentlemen, who, in the name of the Time Savings Bank, collect everyone’s most valuable resource – their time. They promise to keep it safe in an interest-bearing account. But in truth, they deprive people of their time.
Momo is a beautiful literary metaphor for how modern society handles time, its plot nothing short of a fervent plea: Be mindful of your attention! And that’s true when it comes to content, too: lengthy and time-consuming content is still deemed a sign of achievement and intelligence. The value of a book still appears to be measured by its thickness. Squeezing more pages between its covers still seems to increase its authority and retail price. But we’ve reached a turning point. The quantity-value principle has come to an end.
With his book The Economy of Attention in 1998, the architect and philosopher Georg Franck was one of the first to specifically address the implications of monetizing time and attention. But long before that, American economist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon declared: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
It’s worth repeating these words drafted back in 1971: “Information consumes the attention of its recipients.” They support the idea that the quantity-value principle will soon be outdated. In the future, value will be defined by whatever helps us save our scarce attention.
More is not necessarily better. There seems to be a satiation effect, meaning a certain point where we’ve consumed sufficient information. Passing that point by consuming more content doesn’t improve things. It may even make them worse.
Consider the Pareto principle, which says that for many outcomes, 20 percent of the potential effort is enough to achieve 80 percent of the desired effect. In any case, we can be almost absolutely certain that contemporary content production will mainly be about one thing: essentially less!
We have to bear in mind that time is relative. It stretches and shrinks not through external influence but according to how we observe its passing. Or to quote the time researcher Jonas Geisler: “How we perceive time depends on whether we are on this or that side of the toilet door.”
In the novel Momo, the same idea is illustrated through the work ethics of Momo’s friend Beppo Roadsweeper. Beppo’s job is to clean the roads with a broom. Sometimes these roads can be very long. But he tells Momo that, however long the road ahead of him may be, to only focus on the very next sweep of his broom. And then on the one after that. This makes it easier to remain concentrated despite the sheer amount of work to be done. The opposite effect can be described with the help of Parkinson’s law, which isn’t a scientific principle but an ironic take on the omnipresent expansion of bureaucracy. It says that work always ends up consuming whatever time we choose to give it.
Here’s the thing: content and attention are measured by different standards. Content is measured in two dimensions: length and breadth. But attention is mostly measured in depth. Sometimes, these measures correspond – but not always. Deep content can be long and broad but it doesn’t have to be. Other times, people go to great lengths to explain something without ever digging deep. The essential part is to get to the heart of matters. I think it’s high time we valued shorter content – because it’s essential. Essentially less.
Condensing is a sophisticated craft
In August 1940, Winston Churchill commissioned a memorandum to War Cabinet members: “I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their Reports are shorter.” The prime minister believed avoiding wordy language and hyper-detailed analyses would save time and support clear thinking.
What Churchill asserted in a memo published almost 80 years ago can today be supported by empirical evidence. Many people don’t even bother to read longer texts. We don’t always notice it right away, because these extensive efforts are hidden behind embellished surfaces. People do see them, but they don’t take the time to fully read them. One might even say they’re written to be seen rather than to be read.
People read less than you might think.
In a TED talk, journalist Jim VandeHei recalls the disappointment of seeing the user numbers for his online publications. They were disappointing, which made him realize: “Almost nobody listens to or reads most of what you write. Most of the stuff that you agonize thinking about, they pay no attention to.” But that’s not the end of the story, because VandeHei used his findings to build a new media startup called Axios. It aims to spare the attention of its readers by condensing publications into briefings.
I had to confront a similar disappointment when I realized that many people seemed to be more interested in the summary to my German books than in the books themselves. But then I thought: Well, if these people are interested in summarized versions of my books, then maybe I can give them what they want right away: essentially less.
Some believe that it’s superficial to write short texts. But it’s not. Actually, it takes a lot of work to get to the heart of something and condense it. It’s an act of courtesy toward the reader. Blaise Pascal once put it like this: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”
I used the word minifesto in the subtitle of this book-as-summary – a neologism designed to merge the political character of the text and the format’s reductive spirit. But a minifesto isn’t only shorter than its more extensive sibling, the traditional manifesto, but also a bit more modest in tone. It has fewer claims and more questions in it. The term was first introduced in 2016 by Swedish writer Magnus Lindkvist: “While a manifesto is a document created to inspire the actions of many people, a minifesto is created to inspire just one person – yourself. Manifestos have exclamation marks, a minifesto has question marks.”
This made me draft the following five questions to help us learn to conceive what is “essentially less.”
1. What if we started prioritizing depth over volume? We could extend the notion of “don’t judge a book by its cover” to the idea of “nor judge it by its volume.”
2. What if we started striving for the essential? The phrase “Explain it to me like you’re talking to a 5-year-old” could be complemented by the request “Explain it to me as if I could only spare 1,000 seconds.”
3. What if we started producing texts that weren’t just meant to be seen, but to be read entirely? Writing a text for a public audience is a service. If we really want to reach people, we should make a serious effort to gain their attention.
4. What if we recognized the fact that our energy is guided by our attention? Our energy flows toward our focus. We know that from individual mindfulness practice. Now we have to acknowledge that social energy, too, is driven by public attention.
5. What if we treated attention like a resource worth protecting? Our present culture is all about saving resources. This idea should be extended to attention, our most essential resource.
Restriction creates urgency; urgency creates attention
“Nur hier” – “only here.” Two words, printed on a paper cup I bought at Hamburg central station. The company that makes the coffee seems to put so much emphasis on the fact that it’s only being sold in Hamburg that it even branded it that way: “Nur hier.” This is a nice example of how less can be more. After all, “only here“ evokes a sense of urgency: “If you want this type of coffee, you have to buy it now!” We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the appeal to urgency. It reduces many options to one. No more browsing and sampling and trying and testing – this coffee can only be tasted here and now.
Digital environments didn’t invent this form of reductive simplification – but they have made it easier to apply. Which, again, seems kind of ironic considering the limitlessness of the virtual world. But think about it: the very fact that digital content is always available, fully and entirely, at any given time and place, inevitably leads to the imperative of its reduction for the sake of gaining your attention. Think of the story format on social platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, BeReal, or WhatsApp. Stories can only be watched for a couple of hours. This creates a sense of urgency similar to the words “only here” on the paper cup from Hamburg. “If you want to see this, you have to watch it now.”
Restriction has emerged as an effective lever to generate attention on the internet. Experience shows that you can restrict three things to create a sense of urgency and desire: time, access, and quantity.
1. Time. The dating platform Bumble adapted the principle of social media stories: Members can only see their “matches” for a limited number of hours. Shopping platforms are also increasingly adopting this form of restriction by only offering certain discounts during very limited periods of time.
2. Access. Limiting access to a selected group of people has long become the basis for many business models like invitation-only or sign-up-only online shopping clubs. Messenger and chat groups then elevated this distribution method to a communication culture of its own. These restricted realms are sometimes dubbed dark social spaces for creating value by being reclusive and invisible to the general public.
3. Quantity. Offers are limited in time and space or only available on a first-come-first-serve basis. For instance, crowdfunding campaigns often reserve special prices and rewards for, say, the first 100 buyers. And limited editions are, of course, also designed to create desire by effectively restricting quantity.
Some of these artificial restrictions are based on a principle that was previously called dark pattern and is today described as deceptive design. It refers to design elements created to make you do things you didn’t mean to.
There’s an important difference between the efficient principles of stringency and the sneaky tricks of deceptive design. To illustrate this difference, let me add a fourth aspect to the three already mentioned: purpose. Purposeful restriction means there are factual and legitimate reasons to reduce or limit availability. Event venues have to respect their maximum capacity for safety matters, artists can only create so many handcrafted artwork copies, and restaurants can only offer the number of seats they actually have. This fourth element of purposeful and legitimate restriction is by far the most effective one.
Have the courage to use your own attention
Does the moon shine even if we don’t look up to see it? Irish philosopher George Berkeley would have said no and referred us to his principle of “esse est percipi”: to be is to be perceived. But is that really true? Or, to use a more mundane example, there are plenty of songs on Spotify that no one has ever listened to. Does that make them nonexistent?
Well, it’s true that we have to look at the moon to see it shine. And the value of unplayed songs is only created when people listen to them. What’s more, in the economy of attention, the number of views and plays generates a value of its own. If something is consumed by a lot of people, it must be important – that’s the current interpretation of the network effect, also described as the Matthew effect due to the biblical verse: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
We all rely on this form of accumulated value to navigate our own attention. A cluster of people swarming around a market stall automatically triggers our interest – no matter what’s actually being sold. Platforms like YouTube use the same principle by prominently displaying the number of views for every video and shifting our attention away from substantial criteria like the actual quality of the content. The main goal of this minifesto here is to raise awareness on how strongly our attention is manipulated by strategies like these. We could even translate it to an appeal inspired by the great idea of the Enlightenment: Attendere aude! Have the courage to use your own attention!
This enlightened use of our attention will of course affect the way we consume content. Already back in the nineteenth century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.” And Herbert Simon predicted: “I suppose a society that became highly sensitive to the scarcity of attention might modify its reading habits to allocate attention more efficiently.”
And exactly that was the main goal of this book-as-summary: to help us all allocate our attention more efficiently by getting to the essential.
We’re about to see the emergence of a new information format that is to traditional texts what singles are to entire music albums: a condensed and concentrated variant of the classic book; an offer designed to save the audience’s attention and to convey the essential pieces of information with adequate brevity and clarity. This minifesto is a first attempt to describe this publication format. There’ll be further attempts – and I’m convinced they’ll keep evolving.
Essentially Less is a book that challenges the conventional wisdom that more is better, especially when it comes to information and content. The author, Dirk von Gehlen, is a German journalist and digital expert who argues that in the age of information overload, attention is the most valuable and scarce resource that we have. He proposes that we should focus on what is essential and meaningful, rather than what is abundant and trivial. He also explores the implications of this shift for the production and consumption of content, such as books, articles, podcasts, videos, and social media posts.
The book is written in a concise and accessible style, with clear explanations, examples, illustrations, exercises, summaries, and references. The book is also based on the author’s own original summary of his ideas. The book is divided into four chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the power of essentially less. The chapters are:
- Introduction: Condensed information: This chapter introduces the main premise of the book, which is that attention is the most important resource in the information age, and that we should use it wisely and consciously. The author explains how he came up with the idea of writing a book based on his own summary, and how this experiment reflects his vision of creating content that is essentially less.
- There are alternatives to the quantity-value principle: This chapter challenges the assumption that more content equals more value, and that longer and more complex content equals more quality and intelligence. The author shows how this assumption is outdated and unsustainable in the current context of information abundance and attention scarcity. He suggests that we should adopt a new principle that values content based on its relevance, usefulness, and impact, rather than its quantity or length. He also provides some examples of content formats that are essentially less, such as singles, TED talks, summaries, and minifestos.
- The satiation effect: This chapter explains the concept of the satiation effect, which is the point where consuming more information does not improve our understanding or satisfaction, but may even decrease them. The author argues that we have reached this point in many areas of knowledge and culture, and that we should be aware of it and adjust our consumption habits accordingly. He also introduces the Pareto principle, which states that 20 percent of the effort or input can produce 80 percent of the result or output. He applies this principle to content consumption and production, and suggests that we should focus on the essential 20 percent that gives us the most value.
- Essentially less: This chapter summarizes the main message and implications of the book, which is that essentially less is not only possible but necessary for our personal and collective well-being. The author emphasizes that essentially less is not about deprivation or reductionism, but about optimization and prioritization. He also invites us to reflect on our own attention habits and preferences, and to experiment with different ways of consuming and producing content that are essentially less.
I think this book is a timely and relevant guide for anyone who wants to cope with the challenges and opportunities of the information age. The book is well-written and easy to read, with clear explanations, examples, illustrations, exercises, summaries, and references. The book is also engaging and inspiring, with anecdotes from the author’s personal and professional life, and quotes from various sources.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the topics of attention, information, content, and culture. I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their attention skills or habits, or find their essence and meaning in life. I think this book is a valuable resource for learning about the power of essentially less.