Do more. Get more. Be more…
It seems like a pretty simple and straightforward recipe for success, right?
The problem, however, is that more begets more – creating not productivity and performance, but a vicious cycle of busyness that consumes all of our disposable time and energy.
Ironically, the relentless pursuit of more, often leads to less.
How Success Becomes A Catalyst For Failure
Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, calls this the “The Clarity Paradox”.
It’s a four-phase process in which we start strong, then falter.
Here’s how he describes it:
Phase 1: When we have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: With success comes more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
If clarity and focus is the key to success, then how do we fight the temptation to do more and instead, as McKeown suggests, “do less, better?”
The “Closet” Test
McKeown believes that the “work of our lives is to figure out what’s important now and be willing to eliminate anything that isn’t the answer to that question.”
But how do you decide what’s important now?
He suggests the “closet” test.
Consider a closet overflowing with clothes that you rarely wear.
For most, closets reach that point not because you like the chaos and mess, but because we ask the wrong question when we consider down-sizing: “is there a chance that I might wear this someday?”
The answer to this question will almost always be “yes.”
We don’t get rid of anything and our closet remains a mess.
In life we do the same thing. All things being equal, we prefer to have more options as opposed to fewer.
We struggle to say “no” because, like the ineffective closet cleaner, we ask “is there a chance” that this project, this networking event, this client, this relationship…will be of value to me in the future?
Again, the answer to this question will almost always be “yes.”
We don’t eliminate anything and our life remains a mess.
Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
– Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
When we use broad criteria to make our simplification decisions, we end up with a closet filled with clothes we hardly ever wear and a life that feels like it’s spinning out of control.
The alternative, is to use more “extreme” criteria to help you identify what’s most important.
Here are a few examples of extreme criteria related to cleaning the closet:
- Do I absolutely love this?
- Is it something I wear often?
- If I didn’t own this piece of clothing, would I buy it again today?
If the answer to those questions is “No,” then the garment goes.
Three “Extreme: Questions To Help You Maintain Clarity
In a similar way, we can use extreme questions to create greater clarity in our life.
Here are a few questions that I use to help me decide whether to say “yes” or “no” to any new commitment:
1. What am I willing to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to this?
Life is trade-offs.
With limited time there is only so much that you can do – personally or professionally. It’s far easier to say “no” to something to which you haven’t yet committed, then it is to back out of something to which you have.
2. Is this consistent with my values?
Your values are your only safety net.
For years I struggled to prioritize volunteer and service-related work. I would donate money, but rarely time.
When I was recently asked to serve in a leadership position at my church, my first thought was “I don’t have time for this.” However, when I reviewed the decision in light of my core values which include both “Faith” and “Responsibility” (i.e. to whom much is given, much is expected) I realized that this was a commitment that I could, and should, make.
3. Will I regret spending time on this?
It may seem overly simplistic, but a some of the greatest business leaders in the world have triaged their to-do list by asking this simple question.
Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz and the late Steve Jobs, among others, have all found greater clarity by considering how their future self would regard a decision made and acting in a way so as to minimize regret.
“If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, ‘What will I think at that time?’ it gets you away from some of the daily confusion.” – Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Busyness Is A Trap
Writing in the New York Times, author Tim Kreider jokes:
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Ironically, a calendar of back-to-back meetings, may indicate just the opposite: a life lacking in meaning and direction.
By asking better questions, we can more thoughtfully separate those activities, commitments and priorities that are “essential” from all of the rest.
By creating a disciplined and systematic approach for saying “yes” and “no” you can maximize both your contribution and quality of life.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.