There are seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets set out by the United Nations to be achieved by 2030, including ending poverty and taking action on climate change. All seem equally important, yet we only have 168 hours a week.
We can't clean the oceans, support the homeless and provide access to healthcare at the same time. We can quickly feel overwhelmed when looking at the issues plaguing the planet.
When we feel overwhelmed, the typical response is to work harder and longer, sacrificing sleep, proper nutrition and exercise, and time with those dearest to us. Inevitably the never-ending list of things to do leads to anxiety, irritability, anger, doubt about our capabilities, and helplessness.
People get fatigued from extended hours of juggling various tasks. Teams are less effective, and morale suffers because there is no respite in sight.
Priorities and Options
The answer to ending the cycle is to identify priorities and narrow the focus of work. After defining core values, purpose, and areas of mastery, we turn next to How: How best should we pursue our purpose? What priorities are worthwhile of the team's attention and resources? What capabilities can the team master better than others in the market?
When we have a single priority, it is easy to see where we should invest our time. The danger of having more than one is incoherence and confusion when making decisions. The priority for operational efficiency may conflict with customer-first: should the customer service operator resolve requests as quickly as possible or invest time with the client to better understand the issue?
Mapping priorities relative importance to each other will guide the allocation of resources. How many people do we want to allocate to the project to achieve the objective? If time is of the essence to complete the project, should all resources be shifted towards this? Investing in security software to protect customers' data should get as much budget as needed to complete implementation within a short time frame, compared to software to streamline reporting. While both initiatives are important, we could take longer to implement the latter.
We tend to put down multiple things on the priority list for fear of missing out on opportunities. Whether it is another project to raise our hand for or another market or product to launch, we sometimes become paralyzed from making decisions. Ultimately the multiplicity of options stops us from getting to do what is important.
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” said Henry David Thoreau, an American Transcendentalism philosopher. A few things emerge from this:
Difference between being busy and being effective: Filling up our days with activities does not mean we are doing things of value to us.
Opportunity Cost of Time and Resources: There are limited resources, time, and attention, so we must make tradeoffs. If we say Yes to one opportunity, we may not have the time and space to say Yes to something more aligned with our purpose, mission, and priorities.
Myth of having it all: Often, success is achieved at the extremes rather than in the middle. When we try to do everything, often we achieve lesser results than if we focus on a single area.
In The 100-Year Life, I learned that we should focus on building different assets depending on the stage of life. It isn't easy to build up wealth and family assets simultaneously. We should know where work ranks in importance relative to family, health, and personal development. For some, postponing starting a family in their 20s is a priority in favor of moving up the career ladder quickly. For others, establishing a solid family foundation at the start of their career is more important than achieving a high position at work. The book's authors advised that the key to living well is not to do everything at once.
I have a fear of saying No. I fear that doing so would mean missing out on opportunities. I fear disappointing others or hurting their feelings. I fear the confrontation and conflict that may come from saying No. I fear that others will think I'm not nice.
But learning and practicing to say No, especially to things you want (such as No to dessert when the priority is to improve nutrition and diet), brings you closer to achieving your goals.
Know where you want to spend your time: If you don't know what you want to focus on, you will be busy with many activities that won't help your cause. If the priority for the business is to find a better product-market fit, trying to launch in new markets at the same time will be counter-productive.
Remove everything that is not important: If you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything. At each opportunity, ask: Will this help achieve the stated goals and purpose?
Set boundaries; it is not personal: Letting others know in advance your boundaries and focus areas can minimize the need to reject a request to work on a project unrelated to your priorities. Reject the request, rather than the person, politely and kindly.
Unreasonable Requests and Should-Not-Be-Done Opportunities: One should always say No to things that one can't do, such as when there are impossible deadlines or where the request is against the rules. An example of a should-not-be-done opportunity is when there are other commitments, and adding another task would lead to over-commitment. Over-commitment comes with substantial emotional costs. If the opportunity does support the purpose but is not a priority for the time being, then the response could be, "Yes but later".
One Thing at a Time
Some days I pride myself on multitasking. But if I am honest, there is a huge cost incurred in switching between tasks and mindsets. Some activities are more operational, others more creative or strategic.
In writing The Altruistic Capitalist, I found intense periods of writing without switching over to check emails or social media more effective in producing coherent paragraphs. I'd turn on the timer for twenty minutes and focus intensely on writing before taking a break for ten minutes. Then, I'd return to intense writing again and repeat the cycle.
Some lessons from writing to publishing in nine months:
Batch tasks: I'd focus on research and interviews during the week and write on weekends. Particularly during writing periods, I'd turn off devices to minimize disruption. Managers can support team members by letting them know that emails need not be responded to immediately—this gives team members space to focus on value-driving work instead of switching between tasks.
Schedule Focus Time: Mornings are my preference for thinking creatively or reflecting on the bigger picture and long term. Set aside time to think strategically about your priorities and how you are achieving them.
Take Breaks: I like taking hourly breaks, preferably outside and without devices. Set an alarm to move regularly to break up the intense work periods to enable the mind to recharge.
If there is one thing I'd leave you with today, it'd be: "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" (Leonardo da Vinci).