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24-hour days just don't work

Jul 13 2014 10:05
*Ian Mann
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

THIS book came out in April this year. It is already a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Why? It deals with the most serious problem businesspeople face. These 24-hour days just do not work!

Technology was supposed to make our working lives easier, and our workdays shorter. Two decades later, we are still waiting for promised spare time.

Author Greg McKeown describes a seminal experience that led him to a profound conclusion. He was in the maternity ward with his wife and newborn child. A colleague called and asked whether he planned to attend the meeting scheduled at that time, and he said yes.

“To my shame, while my wife lay in hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting.” His colleague mentioned that the client would respect him for making the decision to be there, but the look on the client’s face showed little respect.

“I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.” (What is your story? Pause and recall one. It will make the solution this book offers so much more meaningful.)

The important lesson McKeown discovered from this experience was that if you do not prioritise your life, someone else will.

Many forces make this prioritisation no easy matter even for intelligent, thoughtful, and capable people. The result is the remaining in the “death grip of the non-essentials”. One of the reasons for this is that our society punishes the good behaviour (saying no,) and rewards the bad behaviour (saying yes.)

At a more subtle level, there are two reasons mentioned in the book that stood out for me. The first is that the success often distracts us from focusing on the essentials that were the reason for the success in the first place.

Decision fatigue

The second is that we have so much choice that it overwhelms our ability to manage it. Psychologists point out that a glut of choices causes “decision fatigue” which reduces the quality of the decisions we do make.

When the word “priority” first entered the English language in the 1400s, it was in the singular. Today, it has a plural form allowing people to talk of their top ten priorities. This is part of the reason we entertain the myth that you can have it all, you can have ten top priorities.

With ten priorities, it is not surprising that we lose sight of everything that is meaningful and important, in business and our private lives.

We need to separate the essential from the non-essential only because we cannot meet all our commitments to work, friends, family, social causes, and the rest. The time required simply is unavailable. There are only 24 hours each day. That is it.

The basic proposition of Essentialism is that “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”.

Essentialism is not simply a matter of saying “no” more often, or honing your time management skills. Rather, it is asking: “What is the most important thing I should be doing now?” It is all about how to get the right things done.

McKeown captures the method he presents for becoming an Essentialist in the “wardrobe” metaphor.

Your wardrobe is cluttered and disorganised. You have difficulty finding clothes, and have no place for new ones. The Essentialist would address this problem in three parts.

The first is to “Explore and Evaluate." Rather than considering whether you might ever wear a garment again in the future, ask more focused and stronger question: “Do I love this?” and “Do I look great in it?” and “Do I wear this often?”

If the answer to this question is negative, put the garment into the black bag for delivery to a charity.

In your personal or professional life this question would be “Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?” As you work through this book, you will clarify what your goal is in the various aspects of your life.

The next step in wardrobe management is the “Eliminate” step. This is the step that prevents you having ten top priorities or in term of the metaphor having a “probably should get rid of” pile.

If you are not ready to put this pile into the black bag, you could ask this question: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?” The business equivalent is “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”
 
The Eliminate step is a critical part of the value of this book, with the most value coming from the methods. McKeown describes how to rid yourself of the non-essentials in a way that earns you respect from colleagues, management, and clients.

The third step in wardrobe management is to “Execute”. To do this, you need to decide on a charity that will be the recipient of the clothing, what time they are open, and schedule that into your diary. Without the plan to see this through, the clothing items will return to your wardrobe, sooner or later.

There is a discipline required to be an essentialist, and some courage. Your work-life is not like a wardrobe. In your work-life, the clothes get out of the black bag and back into your wardrobe without you doing anything.

A schedule you set can be scuttled within 20 minutes of your arriving at the office. Even being able to say “no” well, requires courage.

Learning how to do less is the only way to get the maximum return on every irreplaceable moment of your life. Stephen Covey, clearly an Essentialist, put it this way: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Readability:   Light -+--- Serious
Insights:       High +---- Low
Practical:       High +---- Low

-Fin24

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

** How do you organise your 24-hour day to get to everything? Tell us, it could get published.

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ian mann  |  small business  |  entrepreneurs
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