Our lives are busier than ever and the demands on our time are greater than we have known thanks to technology, communication and people’s expectations. Time management techniques seem to have limited effectiveness and only serve to encourage us to do more in the time available. We need to develop the capability of doing less. This is not an easy ask but the tips that follow below (adapted from the book The Power of Doing Less by Fergus O’Connell), if implemented, go a long way to helping achieve that objective.
- Avoid overload; it’s killing us all
The likelihood is that you’re overloaded. So you have to learn to do less because problems that emerge from too much to do could include stress, leaving work late and still feeling guilty, never finding enough hours in a day, feeling that life is passing you by and of course fear that if you don’t do it then bad things will happen e.g. redundancy, offshoring, outsourcing, downsizing (plus termination, lynching, death by strangulation and stoning or burning at the stake). The danger of knowing that you routinely work 12-15 hour days means you can feel like you have all the time in the world – productivity goes out the window!!!!
- Time management courses don’t (and won’t) work for you
Time management books and courses and systems don’t solve the core fundamental problem. For most people the problem is not one of efficiency (which is what time management programs try to deal with); the real problem that needs solving is that we just have too much to do and not enough time to do it. In that case we all have to learn to do less.
- Realise you will NEVER get everything done
An important fact needs to be realised: ‘You will never get everything done’. So, for every task or request of you, ask yourself, ‘Why should I invest my precious time in this?’
- Use two filters to decide where and how to invest your precious time
Think of your desk or in tray as if it was at the bottom of a funnel and the funnel has two filters that are central to the power of doing less:Filter 1 – determines what to do and what not to do – and, as a part of the decision, to ‘kill’ the things we decide not to do, i.e. make the decision as to where to invest our precious time. Tasks and requests that don’t get through Filter 1 must be made to disappear.Filter 2 – ensures that for anything we do decide to do, we do it on our own terms.
Using these two filters is the first step towards gaining the power of doing less.
- Use Filter 1 to work out the ‘right stuff’ to do
In using Filter 1, consciously stick to doing only the ‘right stuff’ but to figure what the right stuff is – especially at work – you need to refer to specific and quantitative objectives which relate to your job description e.g. ‘meet a monthly sales target of $30,000 per month.’ These specific objectives are referred to by O’Connell as ‘boxes’ whereas vague and generalised objectives, like ‘be the voice of the customer’, are called ‘clouds’. If your objectives are clouds, not boxes, ask your boss this question ‘Hey boss, when the end of the year comes, how will we both know that I’ve done an amazing job?’ Boxes help you to focus on the right stuff and to determine where to invest your precious time.
- Make the stuff that doesn’t get through Filter 1 disappear
The ‘not right’ stuff that doesn’t make it through the first filter – ‘To do or not to do’ – has to be made to disappear. And the way to make things disappear is very simple – you’re just going to say ‘no’ to it. Or to be more precise, you’ll say ‘no’ nicely to it.1
- Coincidentally get rid of the ‘chickenshit’ in your life
O’Connell also suggests you need to get rid of what he calls the ‘chickenshit’ from your life, i.e. the small minded, ignoble, trivial stuff in our lives, e.g. those times when we find ourselves fretting unnecessarily and ‘generating maximum anxiety over matters of minimum significance.’ Refuse to allow this stuff to impact on your life.
- Work out the daily priorities, do them and go home
Now that you have determined the ‘right stuff’, the next step is to prioritise tasks. At the end of each day (i.e. the last thing before you go home) prepare your list of things you have to do tomorrow and categorise them using these criteria:
A = I have to do this tomorrow. I cannot go to bed tomorrow without this thing having been done. Planets will collide; stars will fall if I don’t get this thing done
B = It would be nice to get this thing done tomorrow, but I don’t have to (some might become A’s the following day after tomorrow or go away)
C = Realistically, I’m not going to get this done tomorrow (these things may just go way…Great!)
D = I can delegate it. It gets done, and I don’t do it. Nice!
Then when you get in the next day, do all the Ds and all of the As and go home.
- Use Filter 2 to get things done on your terms
O’Connell says that requests always come with ‘constraints’ – especially seemingly tight timeframes, but also resource limitations or perhaps a culture that suggests ‘we never say no.’ In using Filter 2 (doing things on your terms) realise that you don’t always need to agree to the constraints. Stop treating such constraints as if they come from God; think of them instead as a letter from Santa Claus – after all people don’t get everything they ask Santa Claus for. As a first step, rather than saying ‘yes’ to everything, double the deadline (e.g. if something is needed in two hours suggest four hours) and follow up with, ‘Would that do?’ It’s amazing how many people say, ‘That’s fine.’ But before you finally agree to any request, develop responses to these questions:
- What exactly are you trying to achieve and how will you know when you’re done?
- Who’s affected by the project and what do they hope to get from it?
- What are the main stages of the project?
- What are the detailed jobs in the main stages of the project?
- Who’s going to do it?
- How much work does it involve?
- What’s it going to cost?If you think the request is achievable, agree to it and go for it. But, if a task requested of you is not achievable in a suggested timeframe, explain what is achievable and go for that after reaching agreement.
- Develop strategies for dealing with guilt and seeking others’ approval
In the journey towards doing less two, things could derail you:
- approval seeking.
If in now completing tasks early, and going home earlier than others, you are feeling guilty, ask yourself whether you feel happier as a result of your changed behaviour. Did you get home and have fun with your kids, or enjoy a nice evening with your loved one, or work on a pet hobby? If you did, isn’t that good?
Be careful too about your desire for approval by accepting all tasks, staying back late etc. If you allow people to show their disapproval at your leaving early (or, heaven forbid, at a sensible time)then they will continue to do so. If they say something like, ‘I see you took half a day off yesterday’, say ‘Yes I got all the important stuff done and went home. I don’t deal with unimportant stuff’ or words along those lines. And, if you are bold enough, you could add, ‘You should try it some time. If you like I can show you how to do it.’
Here’s to the ‘Power of Doing Less.’ I hope these tips help you reclaim some enjoyment and fulfilment in your life. As Socrates said, ‘Beware the barrenness of a busy life.’
1 O’Connell suggests some expressions for saying no nicely:
‘It’ll be next week before I can get to that’
‘I’m kind of busy and I’ve got a pressing deadline at the moment – could you come back to me about that, say tomorrow?’
‘Can you let me think about that?’ (and – ideally – hope it goes away)
‘I can’t do this thing you’re asking, but I can do…’
‘I’m not sure how much of a priority that is at the moment.’
O’Connell, F., 2013. The Power Of Doing Less. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.