View From the Board
Less but Better
Written By: Mark Oligschlaeger
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
All of us share the same basic desire to make meaningful contributions at home and at work – to lead lives of consequence, to contribute to the success of our teams, and to be recognized for achieving valuable things. We have a bunch of “businesses” that compete for these resources – we want to have rewarding relationships with our spouse and kids, contribute to our communities, succeed in our careers, and so on. And we all understand that our success largely comes down to how we allocate our time, talents, and energy to the most important pursuits – acting according to a clear sense of purpose.
But often we are our own worst enemy, taking on too many commitments and ending up constantly, breathlessly stressed. Ask anyone how they’re doing lately, and they will answer, “Busy!” It's nearly a universal experience to feel busy but not productive. So many demands are competing for our time, and it's a struggle to prioritize.
One of my favorite management thinkers of late is Greg McKeown, author of the New York Times Bestseller "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less." His message is simple, which is to ask: “What is the most valuable thing I can be doing with my time right now?” (the essential) and then eliminate everything else (the non-essential). Only then are we able to make our highest contribution. “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people—our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families—will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”
The key realization is that to do things better, you have to stop doing so much. Less but better. This is easy to say, hard to do. We all run the risk of being pulled in every direction and diluting our best efforts, being a mile wide and an inch deep unless we develop the discipline to say no gracefully. “Eliminate the non-essential. Almost everything is non-essential.” Although I know this intuitively, I violate it regularly and find that I need the reminders in Greg’s book.
The Clarity Paradox
High achievers – the “go to” people in your organization – can become victims of their own success. As the saying goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. McKeown warns that success can become a catalyst for failure, in what he refers to as the four predictable phases of “the clarity paradox:”
Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
When this distracts otherwise capable, driven people from what would be their highest contribution, both the company and the individual lose. Successful people don’t automatically become more successful. In fact, they often stand in the way of their own achievements, and managers aid in the failure by piling on more projects. Hardworking, exceptional people believe that if you fit it all in, you can have it all. It’s simply not true. There’s only so much of you to go around, and if you don’t prioritize your life, then someone else will.
The answer is to do less, but better. When the word “priority” was introduced into the English language in the 1400's, it was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for five hundred years until the 1900’s when we pluralized the term to talk about “priorities.”
To avoid the traps of spending our time on non-essential activities (the “trivial many”), McKeown encourages us to use “extreme criteria” in setting priorities. If the activity doesn’t score a nine or a ten, it’s a one (“if it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no”). He compares the process to our closets:
Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future? Will it one day come back into fashion? Will it fit me again?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. A better criteria for keeping it is this: Would I buy it now? We can do the same with our choices.
The Rule of Three
To help you prioritize, you can use what McKeown calls the Rule of Three. Every quarter, “take three hours to identify the top three essential objectives for the next three months.” If we don’t do this, we are buried in the day-to-day and rarely take the chance to step back and think strategically. When people say they’re “too busy living to think about life,” it’s a formula for filling our lives with things that do not deserve to be included. In your organization, you can use the Rule of Three to get clarity with each member of the team about expectations, accountabilities, and outcomes.
Fortunately at Med One, we have two founder-owners in Larry and Brent, who spend a meaningful amount of time and emphasis on strategic priorities. They make significant investments in the great people of Med One, and in a board of directors, to regularly seek clarity on what is essential. It takes this type of committed leadership to simplify and focus around the right organizational priorities for their customers and employees. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it! Med One is fortunate to have owners and a senior leadership team who invest the time and dollars to ensure the Med One culture of success and clear strategic direction.
My hope and encouragement is that as you seek clarity in your own essentialism, you will find new ways to enjoy your work, eliminate unnecessary stress and clutter, live in the now, regain focus, and have great achievements and purpose. By making deliberate choices, recognizing that only a few things really matter, and that you “can do anything but not everything,” you will make your mark on the world.
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