Eliminate the inessentials and focus on the essentials

Man with phone

Photo from freerangestock.com.

Sitting in a client meeting this past week, I realized that so much of our success as managers and leaders lies in determining what we can realistically accomplish—and what we can’t.

Like most successful organizations, this client has talented people, lots of ideas, but not enough time to get everything done. So that’s where I come in—to help out and provide some guidance.

Leaving the meeting, though, I wondered how much of what we discussed would get accomplished. How would we prioritize the dozens of ideas that were thrown on the table?

You see, I am finally learning that there is a limit to what I can do. I always seem to be overreaching, and that’s when I get into trouble.

Business author Tom Peters was recently interviewed for the McKinsey Quarterly on the topic of leading in the 21st century. I thought his comments were especially pertinent in light of my meeting:

Peter Drucker once said the number-one trait of an effective leader is that they do one thing at a time. Today’s technology tools give you great opportunities to do 73 things at a time or to at least delude yourself that you are. I see managers who look like 12-year-olds with attention deficit disorder, running around from one thing to the next, constantly barraged with information, constantly chasing the next shiny thing.

The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar. That’s why I’m a fanatic on the topic of time management. But when you use that term, people think, “Here’s an adult with a brain. And he’s teaching time management. Find something more important, please.” But something more important doesn’t exist.

I have written before about the importance of establishing priorities and budgeting your time. I like Jim Collins’ idea of creating a “stop-doing” list to eliminate those things that aren’t working. That allows you to focus on those things that are working.

Peter Bregman has a similar idea in his book 18 Minutes. He suggests starting your day by making two lists: a focus list and an ignore list. Your focus list consists of things you need to accomplish as well as what’s important. Your ignore list consists of those things you are willing to forego, i.e., what’s not important.

A few weeks ago, James Clear blogged about Warren Buffett’s own version of the two-list strategy. Clear tells how Buffett helped an employee focus his career by having him create a list of 25 goals. Then Buffett told his employee to circle his top five goals. The employee now had two lists: five very important goals and 20 less important goals.

Buffett asked his employee what he planned to do about the 20 goals that didn’t get circled. The employee replied that he would focus most of his energy on the top five, but he would still try to work on the other 20, too.

According to Clear, Buffett replied, “No, you’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid-at-all-cost’ list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

Eliminating the inessential in our lives is hard because often we feel it is essential. That’s where I think Peters is right. The calendar has this wonderful way of helping us focus. There is a limit to what we can do. So why not focus on those things that we know we need to get done?

This entry was posted in Careers, Goal setting, Management and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Eliminate the inessentials and focus on the essentials

  1. Jeff Ghannam says:

    This is so on point, Jay. I’ve learned the hard way not to over promise. I’ve gotten to a certain point where I know my limitations and believe me it wasn’t easy to get there. Now my mantra is to under promise and over deliver. 😉

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