Stop Believing You Can Do It All

My radishes came in thick. Lush. Dense. The seed packet called for thinning, “Shoots should be 1 ½” apart.” So I began pulling out plants. But it felt too aggressive. It felt wrong. For one thing, I was throwing 8 shoots away for every shoot left standing. For another, the ones left standing were so alone, they were flopping over, spindly survivors missing the support of their neighbors. So I exercised a bit of mercy and left them closer together.

You can see the result: hundreds of unusable, stunted, spindly plants. I had done a great job weeding, but the weeds weren’t the culprits - the un-thinned fellow radishes were. They shouldered in, competed for soil space and fractionalized the yield.

Maybe your schedule is like this. Maybe your days, your weeks, your months are like this. Too many things competing for too little time and energy. What is the solution?

It turns out it’s not the bad things that stunt your productivity – it’s the excess of good things. There are a multitude of things in your life that add little value and only a few things that add significant value. The iconic example of this is Steve Jobs returning to save Apple. He assessed the situation and stripped out 70% of the product line leaving only 3 radishes standing where once there were 10.

“We examined the future product roadmap ... and what we found was that 30 percent of them were incredibly good. And about 70 percent of them were either pretty good, or things that we didn't really need to be doing. And so, we've pared a lot of that back, so we could focus the same amount of original resource even more on what was remaining--and add a few new things in. So, the resources that we're investing are equal or greater than we have been, but it's on fewer things…”

Assess the garden of your day, your week, your month, your life. As Greg MacKeown, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less says, “Your job is to carve out the trivial many” so the vital few can flourish.

Why do we try to do it all? Because we’ve been socialized to believe we can. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his 2015 book The Burnout Society says we emerged from a disciplinary history of prohibition and commandments filled with oppression, negativity and walls. He points out that today’s society is the opposite. We are no longer afflicted by the word “No”. We are afflicted by an excess of positivity – an excess of “Yes, we can.”

Ours is now an achievement society where you and I are the entrepreneurs and constant self-improvement is our job. Han believes it is “the pressure to achieve that causes exhaustive depression.”

We were once exhausted by toiling in the absence of freedom - we are now exhausted by its excess. “The achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom – that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation.”

Today’s drive toward self-improvement denies us the concept of enough. Ours is “a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave.”

Imagine it differently. Visualize the moment of liberation. Visualize a world in which your sovereignty is restored, where your greatest, most intelligent superpower is asking, “What will I stop doing?” Visualize yourself differentiated from the crowd by your ability to say “No” to the many things that would love to steal your yield.

The perfect philosophy to restore your sovereign right to say no was dubbed by Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. He attributes LI’s success to “fewer things done better.”

Imagine a week in which you enjoy:

  • Fewer activities done better
  • Fewer meetings done better
  • Fewer projects done better
  • Fewer interactions done better

It’s clear what fewer means. But what does better mean?

Doing things better means:

Doing things unanxiously – in a state of flow, clarity and focus.

Doing things undistractedly – where you’re present, aware and in the moment.

Doing things effortlessly - working in your sweet spot – your place of talent and passion.

Doing things purposefully - so they align with your organization’s highest priorities.

Doing things co-creatively - so they integrate with others’ efforts.

Doing things productively - so they add value, make a difference and contribute.

Doing things efficiently – so they only have to be done once.

Here are 3 questions I use every morning to thin out my day:

  1. What matters most today?

Job 1 is to identify what’s essential and to eliminate what’s not.

  1. What do I need today?

I identify the resources that will energize me to achieve what matters most. They can be things like clarity, working in my sweet spot, support from a colleague.

  1. What will I do today?

Now I’m clear on what’s essential and the resources required to achieve that. I write down all the things I’d love to put on my to do list. There can often by up to 10. If I try to achieve all 10, one of two things will happen: a) I’ll only get 6 done and feel deflated b) I’ll slave until I get all 10 done but fail to achieve fewer things done better. What’s essential ends up getting short shrift.

So I pluck out 6 things and leave 4 standing – 4 things I can do better – 4 things that are in service of what matters most for the day.

Use these 3 questions and you’ll:

  1. Free yourself from the delusion that you can do it all.
  2. Produce a yield that’s vital and fulfilling (not spindly and inedible like my radishes).

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