New York Times Bestselling Author
The Simplest Way to Avoid Wasting Time
I recently met with a capable executive who is passionate about his work and good at it. The problem is he pursues so many initiatives that by the end of the year people don’t really know what he has accomplished. They know he has done a bunch of stuff but it becomes a blur of busyness. It’s the career equivalent of Apple’s undisciplined strategy of “add more product lines” before Steve Jobs’ return; they reached 330 different products and it almost sunk the company.
The executive I was meeting with wanted me to run essentialism workshops to every person in his company or if not that at least to every manager in his company. Still, with no sense of irony he is also wanting to roll out five different workshops to every employee in his company. He has added two different leadership competency models, a values list and on and on. He is enthusiastic about it all. But it is all just too much. He is making a tiny amount of progress is too many directions.
I advised this executive to become far more selective. Following through with the Apple metaphor, Steve reduced the number of product lines from 330 to an astounding 10 products. And, of course, it proved critical to the turnaround of the company. The mantra was to say no to almost everything in order to say yes to a few “insanely great products.” It is a principle that can work for companies and also the people who work for them. Instead of trying to do everything, popular, now we can pursue the right things, for the right reasons at the right time. By doing fewer things, better we can make a higher contribution.
We can supercharge our career by simplifying it. Here’s how:
- Explore more; commit less. One paradox of essentialism is that essentialists explore more than their nonessentialist counterparts — they’re just systematic about it. Essentialists are incredibly selective about what they commit to. In the interim period, they can be curious about lots and lots of things. They just don’t go deep until they find something that’s a total 10-out-of-10 ‘Yes! This is the thing I should be doing.’ Think of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive saint day after day, “This might sound crazy but…” And most of the ideas were crazy until, as Jony put it, eventually an idea was so great it took the air out of the room.
- Negotiate the nonessentials. For a lot of people it is laughable to imagine saying “No!” to a senior leader. They worry, for good reason, that such a blunt response will immediately be a career limiting move. However, when we get caught between the false dichotomy of “either I have to say yes to everything or I will be seen as insubordinate” leads a lot of people to avoid the conversation about what they should really be focused on. When people believe that nonessentials are nonnegotiable they lose a lot of power in that very moment.
- Conduct a career offsite. As someone once said to me, we spend more time planning our vacation than planning our careers. We can apply the practice of a quarterly offsite to our own lives and careers by taking a few hours to think about the bigger picture questions: “If I can only achieve three things over the next three months what would they be?” and “Where do I want to be five years from now?” When we only react to the latest email we become rudderless; blown about by every wind of corporate change.
- Come back to your purpose. My friend and ocean advocate, Lewis Pugh, has designed an extraordinary career around his professional purpose: to create National Parks in the Oceans. His clarity of purpose enables him to achieve the (almost) impossible. Among other things he swims in the most extreme water conditions imaginable. In one recent TED talk he describes swimming in the North Pole in temperatures of minus 1.7 degrees (see it here). He says, “The most powerful form of self-belief comes from believing in something greater than you. Because when you’ve got purpose, everything becomes possible.” So when you are exhausted or getting pulled in a million directions come back to your purpose.
- Give up the idea that success means pleasing everyone. Thinking that you can say “yes” and keep everyone happy is a false premise. When you try and say yes to everyone, is everyone happy? No! You will make a millimeter progress in a million directions, which will frustrate you and everyone else. When you say push back you may be sacrificing an ounce of popularity in the moment, but you’re trading up for a longer-term respect.
- Celebrate the reality of tradeoffs. Instead of asking, “How can I make it all work?” Ask, “What are the tradeoffs I want to make?” Make them deliberately and strategically. Don’t try to straddle every request. As Michael Porter has written, “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”
In the end, it is this idea of choosing to be different that can be so powerful. Designing a career of contribution is less about adding layers of activity like we do in an oil painting. Instead, it is about becoming more of who we are already are by chiseling away those things that don’t feel right.