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Get better at addition with some skillful subtraction

January 22, 2015

Happy New Year!

At the start of 2015 a lot of my conversations with clients are all about how to do more with less time. We are discussing the power of focus in all areas of life and the importance of making making choices about what goes on the plate and what needs to be off.

We all have to do lists, business plans, goals, and schedules full of commitments. We learn to be great at adding more and more to our days and proving the maxim “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.” The result is that we all feel like we don’t have enough time.

At the start of this year as you consider what you want to do and what you want to achieve, pause for a moment and reflect on this question: what do you want to let go of?

Leadership consultant and writer Margaret Wheatley once put it like this: “What do you want to walk away from in order to walk towards?” She recognised that in order to honour what is most important for us we also have to learn to let go.

William Ury puts this another way in his book The Power of a Positive No. What are the values, needs, and priorities that you wish to say yes to, and that cause you to need to say no to a particular situation or opportunity?

Everyone I know feels like they just don’t have enough time. Although we all only get 24 hours a day we pack our waking hours so full of stuff we feel stressed and anxious, and like we are always trying to catch-up.

Letting go is hard. It’s hard because our best intentions have us wanting to support others, give of our time, take responsibility for, carry-out, and follow-through. With so much going on in our lives it’s not enough to let go of the things we don’t like to do, what is also important is to let go of some of the activities we want to do but maybe just not quite as much .

I have a friend, Suzanne, who is a senior partner with a significant administrative role at her firm. After a couple of hard years she has learned that to be most effective she has to be highly strategic about what she takes on. This means paying close attention to what is requested of her, and asking herself “is this mine to do, or can it be also well handled by someone else?” This sounds easy but she has an instinctive need to help out and so when someone comes with a request her first instinct is to assist them. She has learned to stop and consider and weigh the request against all other things she has on the go.

I had a similar struggle at the end of 2013 when I considered the year ahead. I had a number of large projects starting up and a year-long training course to attend. I knew something was going to have to go. In the end I decided to let go of my role on the board of an organization I was deeply committed to. It was a difficult choice and one I have not regretted. Walking away from the board position allowed me to turn to the new projects with enhanced energy and capacity.

Effective subtraction starts with examining your priorities. What is most important to you?

Consider your commitments and priorities within these three general categories: work life, family/friends, and personal life.

Finding activities that are rewarding across two or more areas of your life is a great way to achieve more with less time. For Jason, coaching his daughter’s soccer team is a family activity, but as he also loves the sport and coaching it also fulfills an important personal need. Janet enjoys skiing and takes her clients out to the slopes twice a year in an activity that is rewarding both a personally and professionally.

Beware of your good intentions! Carefully examine the commitments that you do out of a feeling of obligation. Pay attention to what you have on your plate. Are you doing it because it feels like something you “should” do? Because this is “a good thing to give time to” even though it takes more time that you have?

Our lives are constantly changing. What is most important to us will change from year to year. Take a quick inventory of your commitments, what can come off your plate to leave you more room for what’s most important?

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