The human being has all but lost the capability to manage the preponderance of choice – this has been called “decision fatigue” by some. There are just so many options, be it in grocery shopping varieties to choose from, career decisions or just knowing what to do, why to do it and when to do it. The English word “priority” originated in the early 1400’s. It was singular and stayed so for the next 500 years. It was only in the 1900’s that some started pluralising the word and started talking about “priorities”. Illogically maybe, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality – somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. Part of the stress we all experience probably originates and is accelerated by ever-increasing demands on our time, energy and skillsets. We constantly have to make choices about the many “priorities” we seem to accumulate, often resulting in the truly important being side-lined and feelings of guilt plaguing our lives. The motivation for all this is usually good – we want to be successful and make our respective marks in our world – but we inevitably get caught in the “priorities” trap and become overworked and under-utilised, investing energy in a host of “wrong” activities.

Greg McKeown, in his book: “Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, noted that the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure and warned against the paradox of success:

  • When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavour
  • When we have success, we gain reputation as a “go to” person (we are then presented with increased options and opportunities)
  • When we have increased options and opportunities, the same of which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.
  • As such, we become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

We all probably have fallen into the above success trap many times over the respective courses of our lives. No-one can fault us on our busy schedules, amount of energy applied to work issues or levels of commitment. We see ourselves as faithful and easily become the person in the maxim – give work to be a busy person, as it will get done. We end up having just too much to do to be able to do these activities really well and others start prioritising our lives for us. We start living by default and not by design. We end up not investing our energy in the right activities and the possibility of success becomes further removed from us.

The German phrase “weniger aber besser” (loosely translated “less, but better”) has always fascinated me. This has nothing to do with not working hard, but has everything to do with eliminating those activities which may stand in the way of one achieving the remarkable. It implies a concentration of energy on the truly important, allowing one’s creativity and focus to be applied appropriately to the one thing that will make all the difference. It means saying “no” to anything that may side-track you and cause you to be less effective. It realises your best contribution and recreates the opportunity for success on a new level.

Applying this technique implies the following:

  • Clarify the endeavour that will lead to success – exactly define what needs to be done that will bring about achievement. Make sure that you have a grasp of the resources, needed skills, levels of energy and time necessary to complete the endeavour.
  • Eliminate all detractors from your schedule – if these activities still need to be done, delegate these tasks where possible. Say “no” to other unrelated opportunities. For the sake of relationship maintenance, include boss, colleagues/friends and family in conversations regarding intent.
  • Focus to execute effectively – unrelenting focus drives energy to the right action items, which in turn leads to success. Plan your day and execute your plan.

Truly successful people focus on the most important and eliminate detractors – activities that might hold them back or slow them down from achieving their goals. Laser-focus on the priority that will make all the difference to your rate of success requires a “less, but better” approach – even perhaps saying “no” to many of the things you really like doing.

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