About 20 years ago, I did a little experiment. I wanted to find out if it really is possible to do business from anywhere in the world. So I packed my family off to Rome (one of my favorite cities) for a six-week “working vacation.” I not only learned that, yes, it is possible for me to work in Rome (or just about anywhere else, for that matter), I also learned something that has had a much more profound effect.
In Rome, completely separated from the crazy, stressful routine I was used to back home, I learned how to simplify my life.
If you think simplifying your life will mean making less money, enjoying less success, maybe even being less effective as a businessperson, think again. Simplifying your life is about having more – not less – of the good things. More passion. More meaningful work and relationships. And you can have more of those things by having fewer of the bad things – unsatisfying rituals, self-destructive habits, energy-draining feelings, and so on.
The Simplicity Imperative
“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” – Henry David Thoreau
Today, I’d like to talk about simplifying your work life. I’m going tell you about a few things I’ve discovered that have worked for me. If they work as well for you, you’ll accomplish more of what matters and eliminate stress-inducing and time-wasting experiences that are commonplace to smart, hardworking people in almost every sort of business.
We live in a time in which information overload is ubiquitous, communication is largely unfiltered, and meaningless busyness keeps many earnest people from achieving their most important goals. In an effort to keep up with the daily storm of inputs, they unwittingly mistake being busy for being productive – even though, in calm moments, they can easily distinguish them. Very commonly, they let the priorities of other people – their bosses, their colleagues, and their employees – take precedence over their own. As a result, they feel swamped… and out of control.
If this sounds familiar, you should know this. You are never going to gain control over your life if you continue to do what you are doing now: trying to catch up with the current backlog so you can start fresh and stay in control after that’s done.
It’s not going to happen. Even if you do catch up, you’ll have, at best, a day’s respite. Then the whole mess will begin anew.
There are probably a hundred personal productivity mistakes I have made in my business career, but most of them can be sorted into three persistently wrong-headed impulses:
* The egoistic desire to be the “man” – i.e., the person that solves the problem and gets things done.
* The self-indulgent enjoyment I get from solving complicated problems with complex solutions.
* The mental resistance I have to reexamining my priorities every day.
These wrong-headed impulses have corrective measures:
* I have to remind myself every day NOT to get involved in 80% of the work problems I encounter.
* I have to ask myself, every time I come up with a “good idea”: Can I make this simpler? Simpler to explain and to understand and to execute?
* I have to spend a half hour every day examining the chores in front of me and prioritizing them so that I can delegate or ignore most of them.
I’m not suggesting that these protocols will double your effective productivity, cut your stress levels in half, and put your career advancement in fast forward. They had that effect on my career, but you’ll have to decide if they make sense for you.
If you are intrigued by what I’ve said so far, you should begin by considering the following two-step plan for improving your business life:
It’s not the ingredients that matter. It’s the cake!
Whether you’re managing a project, running a company, or handling your day-to-day schedule, you need a firm grasp of the big picture. Yes, that’s what every business management expert says – but I don’t believe more than 10% of those that “know it” do it. I know I didn’t.
Having a “vision” for the business will do nothing for you or the business if it’s a lofty dream about either improving the world or making a zillion dollars. For a vision to work, it must be specific to your industry and to your company. It must be realistic – i.e., achievable. It must be understandable – i.e., clearly articulated. And it must be customer-focused – i.e., it can’t be only about you, your shareholders, and your employees.
Ninety percent of the “visions” I see promoted by CEOs in the business press are obviously BS – pabulum for the public or feel-good messages for shareholders and employees. As a business leader, you are certainly entitled to whatever fantasies you have of the future. But the company vision you should formulate and promote should be, as I said, achievable, understandable, and customer-focused.
Work on that and you will have something to build on. You don’t have to get your vision exactly right out of the gate. You shouldn’t even try. Because as time passes and you learn more about your business and its market, you will adjust and sometimes even radically change parts of it. But having a pretty good vision (that adheres to these three rules) will make your work life so much better. You will find, as I did, that everything moves faster and with fewer restarts and much less stress and toil.
First the Vision. Then the Goals.
Your business objectives should grow naturally out of your vision. Use it as a guide to develop your goals. I establish mine at 5 levels:
- Long-term (5 to 7 years)
Since I have explained this system in detail elsewhere, I won’t get into it here. The logic of it is easy to understand: How can you create yearly goals if you don’t know what you want to accomplish in 5 to 7 years? Likewise, how can you create monthly goals without a yearly plan?
I won’t try to convince you, here, why this is such an important practice for personal productivity in your business life. I will acknowledge that it takes a bit of time. A half-hour daily. An hour or two weekly and monthly. And a day or two yearly.
And unless you are already in the habit of doing this (not making to-do lists – that is a completely wasteful practice), the idea of this extra work will not appeal to you. I can say only this about that feeling: I get it. I felt it. But I was wrong. This is the single most effective thing I’ve ever done to accomplish what I’ve accomplished in my business career.
It’s all about time. Yes, you’ve heard that before, too. But it’s true. Time is the most valuable resource we have in life. And it is also very limited. We can give ourselves more of it by working longer hours and more days and by living longer. But that can only get you so far.
The answer is not to spend more time working, but to increase the productivity of every hour that you work.
Some tricks to help you along the way:
When composing your daily objectives, ask yourself:
* “Is this something I could not do? Is it something I could delegate? Is it something I don’t need to do at all?”
* “Is there some way I could do this in half the time?”
* “Is this related to one of my long-term objectives, one that will truly improve my career?”
In selecting my priorities each day, I highlight the most important tasks – the ones that that are essential to my long-term business plan. And because I know I can do only a limited number of things each day, I do those tasks first thing in the morning, when I have an abundance of mental energy. Accomplishing them gives me a boost of additional energy that helps me get through all the secondary and tertiary objectives of the day.
If I ever have to choose between two priorities, I ask myself: “Of the two, which one will be more important to me at the end of my life?”
It’s all about economy – doing fewer things overall but making sure that the things you do have the greatest possible importance… to the business, to its customers, and to your career.
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