It only takes one: Do less, think more

Sauvik Das
6 min readMay 6, 2021


The most impactful people are often defined by one great idea.

Einstein, for example, had a long career but is known especially for relativity. Marie Curie for radioactivity. Herb Simon for bounded rationality.

Some people are especially famous for being prolific, of course — e.g., Paul Erdos — but I find conversations about these people often tend to focus more on how stellar it was that they published so much, rather than what they published about.

The names I just mentioned are all intellectual giants in their fields [1], but the concept applies at more modest levels of professional accomplishment as well. When considering which Ph.D. students to admit, for example, I find myself more drawn to the people who have done one truly excellent thing than many pretty good things.

In other words, the culture of producing as-much-as-possible is not only bad for mental health (contributing to record high levels of burnout, anxiety, &c.), it is also counter-productive. So, yes, this is just another: “do less, but better” post — but it’s not as simple as all that in practice, is it?

The false dichotomy between quality and quantity: Doing better requires doing more

I’ve written before about the folly of measuring academic impact through count statistics, and how that results in an anxiety-ridden, accomplishment-before-impact quantity over quality mindset. And I stand by that. [2]

But here’s a research-backed finding to complicate this narrative [3]: quantity is not necessarily the opposite of quality — it may, in fact, be a prerequisite. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it seems at first blush: we develop our skills and our taste with practice. The more we do, the more practice we get, the higher the quality of what we produce. Moreover, exploring more ideas helps us come unstuck — if helps us see the forest, instead of fixating on the trees.

So how do we square the idea of “do less, but better” with the idea of “do more to do better”?

Do Less, Think More

Fresh out graduate school and on his way to starting his faculty gig at Stanford, Michael Bernstein told me that the single most important piece of advice he could offer was to set aside…



Sauvik Das

Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Formerly at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.