disciplined pursuit of less

Your Success May Depend on How Much Less You Can Do


Just yesterday I came across a post on the Harvard Business Review blog by Greg McKeown titled The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. I was dumbfounded by it’s simplicity and practicality, not to mention the way it pulled back the curtain on what I believe to be one of the biggest problems we all face: the drive to always be doing more. Instead of accomplishing more, this destructive belief that there is always something else we could be doing causes us to do…nothing. At best, our days can become a break-even proposition and that kills progress. I know I’ve been guilty of downloading the latest to-do app like my parents used to buy home fitness gimmicks in the 80's; have you?

It’s gotten me nowhere because when I finally realized this habit, I also realized I had dozens of disjointed to-do lists all over my iPhone. So how do we back away from the latest lifehack and actually change our ways?

By practicing the disciplined pursuit of less.

McKeown begins his article by defining the Clarity Paradox. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. With real clarity of purpose comes success.
  2. That success leads to more options and opportunities.
  3. Increased options and opportunities lead to diffused efforts.
  4. Diffused efforts undermine the clarity that led to success in the first place.

I strongly encourage you all to read the article that inspired this one, but here are a few takeaways that may help you avoid the clarity paradox:

Be picky

In the article, McKeown uses the example of a cluttered closet full of clothing that rarely, if ever, gets worn. He suggests we stop wondering if we might wear an item again in the future and ask ourselves instead if we absolutely love each item.

Pretend that closet is your list of contacts. If I’m honest with myself, I could probably go through my contact list right now and cut out a good number of people that I just won’t be doing business with. Couldn’t you? Don’t let that mindset of, “well maybe if I just send her ONE more email, she’ll become a customer" give you an excuse to keep a cluttered and ineffective (not to mention, artificially inflated) list.

I’m not saying there’s a timeframe you need to keep in mind to decide whether to drop a few contacts, but maybe next time you’re getting ready to add a NEW contact, you should first scan your list and see if there’s one you can drop. I’ll bet there is.

Some things are just essential. Ditch what isn’t.

What does your desk look like right now? Is it a mess? I’ve got keys, stacks of paper, my daughter’s hair band, and a pepper shaker (yes, a pepper shaker) on my work surface right now. All I really need is my computer and the notes I’m working from.

In much the same way we just seem to look up one day and our desks are a mess, the same thing happens to our workday. We fill it with processes and actions that don’t move us forward or provide clarity. Why would you want to ADD anything else to that? Yet we all do it. Especially after a networking event or conference where we hear about the next failsafe sales tactic.

I’m not saying don’t try it, but much like your contact list, before you add something else to your day, examine how much you’re already trying to squeeze in and drop something else first. You may miss an opportunity for something fun, but if you end up sealing a new deal the trade off is worth it.

What are you willing to give up to be successful?

We tend to place a great deal of value on things after we own them. Successful people recognize the value beforehand. But they also make decisions by weighing that value against what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it.

There’s a great deal of emphasis on the idea of creating the perfect work life balance these days. We’re all told that we can have an amazing life while we sit and pluck the feathers from our most recent business conquest. So now that’s the big dream many of us chase.

The reality, though, is that this just isn’t a practical approach. I want you to set your sights higher than you think you should. I want you to set goals that make other people think you’re crazy. I want you to do it all and expect it to happen. But I also want you to realize that it will cost you something to reach those heights.

McKeown sums it up by saying you should ask yourself, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice to get it?"

So now the big question is, how much less can you do today and how much further can it take you?

Have you ever consciously made the decision to whittle down the expectations you hold for yourself in terms of your day-to-day work? How did that go? Did you feel better? Did it make you feel more stressed at first? Did you stick with it? Tell us about it in the comments below.