Stop Wasting Time on the Unimportant

7 Questions to Eliminate the Non-Essential and Focus on the Critical

When the infamous bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

We all spend the majority of our day looking to make a meaningful impact. But how many of our efforts set us up to actually deliver one? Are we going where the money is or just chasing the same dead-ends of frustration?

Pareto’s Law states that 80% of our outputs come from 20% of our inputs. If we focus our attention on activities that rank in the top 20% in terms of importance, we’ll get an 80% return on our efforts. If our to-do lists have ten items on them, the two most important ones will give an 80% return on our time.

Yet what is this 20%? What are these items that deliver the vast majority of our impact?

It’s a difficult question. For one, it’s context specific, the answer changes for most people. But mainly, it’s because we struggle to project long-term impacts. We just don’t always have the clarity to recognize which investments will pay out 10x. Otherwise, this would all be much easier.

As a result, we’re saddled with unfocused ambition that is more likely to lead to frustration than fulfillment. And as Tim Ferriss wisely put it, “Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.”

But maybe we just need to look at the question in a different way.

The Benefits of Inversion

Charlie Munger is fond of saying, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” His thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, who made great strides in the field of mathematics by following the strategy “man muss immer umkehren” (loosely translated to “invert, always invert.”) In Munger’s words,

“[Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.”

Instead of locking down that 20% that will yield an 80% return, try thinking about that 80% of your time that isn’t doing it’s fair share. While it’s difficult to project long-term benefits and major successes, it’s much easier to recognize which parts of our day have little chance of delivering worthwhile returns.

Yeah, those two hours spent on YouTube probably fall directly into that bottom 80%. But for those other less clear areas, I’ve found that a couple questions typically help differentiate between the critical and the non-essential.

What problem is this solving?

“The people above you (bosses, management, and organization leaders) want one thing most of all — they want solutions to problems.” — Jay Abraham, Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got

The large majority of entrepreneurs and founders have one thing in common. They didn’t necessarily start out with a great product or world-changing idea. Instead, they all started with the hopes of solving a problem.

If you’re not solving a problem — or opening up a new opportunity — it’s unlikely that you’re going to inspire people to make a change. And if you’re not inspiring them to make a change, why should they bother noticing?

Ask yourself, is this work solving a problem or just perpetuating the current status quo? I realize that not everyone is working to resolve the organization’s biggest issue. But most companies have a whole host of inefficiencies and struggles that no one is currently handling (or at least handling well). With these opportunities surrounding us, why would you want to spend your time working on something that isn’t going to bring about a positive change?

Can someone else do this just as well?

“Our world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine.” — Seth Godin, Linchpin

Effectiveness comes from unique contributions. We’re more productive and generally happier when we’re working in areas that align with our strengths and help us make a unique contribution.

Would you rather do work that’s unique and will be associated with your legacy, or work that can be easily replicated by any number of employees? Because if your work can be easily replicated, there’s not much that’s setting you apart. As Seth Godin wrote,

“You don’t become indispensable merely because you’re different. But the only way to be indispensable is to be different. That’s because if you’re the same, so are plenty of other people.”

Too many people fall into the trap of doing work because they can do it. When in actuality, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should. If it doesn’t align with your strengths, there’s likely to be other people who are better suited for that work. Find them. Develop them. Train them. And get back to focusing on work that let’s you stand out.

Is this in line with your mission?

In his tremendous book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown tells the story of a twelve-year old girl named Cynthia who was waiting to spend a special evening in San Francisco with her father. They made plans to catch a trolley to Chinatown, eat their favorite Chinese food, see the sights, and catch a movie together. Everything was going according to plan until her father ran into an old college friend and business associate, who invited them out for a seafood dinner at the Wharf. Her father responded: “Bob, it’s so great to see you. Dinner at the Wharf sounds great!”

Cynthia was crestfallen. Her special evening with her father was falling apart. Until he continued: “But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don’t we?” And with that he grabbed her hand and they ran out the door to what was an unforgettable time together.

Cynthia’s father was the famed management thinker Steven R. Covey. A man who lived his advice on prioritization and insisted on using his time to focus on those things he believed truly mattered. In Cynthia’s words, this one decision, “bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me!”

It’s easy to mistake the non-essential for the essential when we lack clarity on which work aligns to our mission. The alternative is to stop and consider which efforts further our mission and which ones are non-essential distractions. As Covey was fond of saying,

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Are you doing this to avoid something else?

“Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” — Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

One hundred years ago, a consultant named Ivy Lee met with the president of Bethlehem Steel, Charles M. Schwab, in an attempt to improve the effectiveness of Bethlehem’s executive staff. Lee’s method for achieving peak productivity was simple and is as relevant today as it no doubt was in 1918. His method:

  1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Only six.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of importance.
  3. Tomorrow morning, concentrate on the top task. Don’t move on to the second task until the first is finished.
  4. Approach the rest of the list in the same manner and repeat going forward.

The simplicity of Lee’s method forces us to prioritize our work and avoid procrastinating on those critical, yet uncomfortable, actions. Personally speaking, if I’m developing my priorities at the end of the day, I’m much more likely to sign tomorrow’s version of myself up for difficult tasks that I know are important. If I wait until the morning to set those priorities, it’s too easy for me to rationalize away the important for the immediate.

Too frequently we sacrifice the discipline of doing what we know is most critical. Throughout each day, ask yourself: If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be happy with my day?

If the answer is no, then perhaps there’s a better use for your time.

Does it involve the word “meeting?”

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” — Dave Barry

Don’t trust anyone who actively looks forward to a day of meetings. There’s no surer sign of someone who’s looking to avoid doing actual work for the majority of their day. As the great Peter Drucker put it, “one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”

Meetings are sometimes necessary. We need to make sure people have the knowledge they need to do their jobs. But they should be the exception instead of the rule. Most meetings are to report status. And most status can be communicated through other more efficient means.

Limit meetings to those that require one. And maybe everyone won’t be so burned out that they’ll actually be useful.

If you didn’t do this, are there any (real) negative consequences?

Have you ever issued reports that you suspected no one read? Or held meetings that didn’t benefit anyone? If you just stopped doing them, would anyone complain?

My engineering group used to issue a weekly progress report. It gave a detailed update to senior management on each project and the varying levels of performance. It was a pain to pull together each week, not the least of which involved pulling the engineers out of their work to fill out a report that was outdated the second it was issued.

One day, we just stopped issuing it. And no one said anything. Instead, we were able to take this time and turn it towards more productive areas.

This practice, referred to as the “reverse-pilot” encourages us to stop doing a suspect effort and see if anyone notices its absence. It often exposes those tasks which were at one point useful but no longer offer a benefit worth the cost.

Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Because while most people are fast to say no beforehand, they’re hesitant to object afterwards.

Is this something you truly enjoy?

Because life’s too short to fill our days with tasks we don’t like to do.

A To-Do List and a Not-To-Do List

“One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” — Bruce Lee

There’s few things more depressing for me than coming home from a busy day yet having the realization that I didn’t really accomplish anything worthwhile.

It’s tempting to say that everything is important. It’s easy to make everything a top priority and hedge our efforts by focusing on everything all at once. The only problem is that nothing meaningful ever really gets done.

The sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, once recounted his experience as the Secretary of State as one of ineffectual busyness and empty accomplishments. As he wrote in his journal,

“Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.”

Without the discipline to focus on the truly important, it’s easy to fall into the busyness trap. Without taking the time to set our own priorities, others will be happy to do it for us.

While it’s often difficult to see what work will be a top investment, it’s much easier to recognize the efforts those efforts that fill our days with empty accomplishments and frustration instead of fulfillment.

Decide what you’re not going to do. Returning to the advice of the great Charlie Munger, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage we have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!

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