Every company I’ve worked for fails the Essentialism test

Published March 13, 2017   Posted in How to Think

I’m reading a book called Essentialism. It’s the manuscript for simplifying your life and removing much of the bullshit that clutters our minds and distracts us from those things that are truly important. No organization I’ve worked for has done this. At all.

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

If you’ve ever read anything by Tim Ferriss, you already know the premise. Keep meaning. Remove crap. Pick and choose ruthlessly. Only, this book wasn’t written by Tim Ferriss. Greg McKeown is the mastermind behind this one. Link is to the right (Warning: Affiliate link!!!!).

It all started to hit home beginning with McKeown’s discussion of the word priority. “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.”

Then, the 19th century hit and society began to redefine the word, bending it to include more, and more, and more. Now, we have multiple “first things”. We must not direct our limited attention spans to a single, unifying purpose or goal. Instead, organizations and people insist on dividing up our focus to so-called “multiple priorities”.

Ever heard the phrase “list of priorities”? Of course you have. If you work at a typical organization in corporate America, you hear this all the time. Whiteboards contain these lists. The “10 top list of priorities”. Every organization I have ever worked for – and likely yours as well – bends the word “priority” to include more. As much as possible.

What’s the problem with more?

Humans are not machines. We suck at multitasking. Our attention spans are very often limited. The faster we go, the more mistakes we make. Any society that equates “doing” with “productivity” is guilty of this more syndrome.

I do not work well within organizations that incessantly clamor for more. Perhaps that’s why I retired early.

Many evenings I spent in the office – generally after everyone else had more wisely departed for the night, grinding through an assignment. The office was eerily quiet. Occasionally, I would look up from my computer monitor and listen. Listen to the nothingness. Outside, the sun quickly faded – as it often does. It felt strange wandering a quiet, empty office at night. I would peek into cubicles and take note of desktop clutter. What must that person be doing right now? Dinner with family, maybe? Relaxing with a beer?

Why was I stuck in this fluorescent hell pounding through lines of code until some sweet harmonic convergence finally put the pieces of the puzzle into place? Was I really this much of a sucker?

…but I digress.

Naturally, everything needs to be done “now” or, more cleverly, yesterday. Then, we can’t stop there. We need more.

More features. More power. A hell of a lot more widgets…as many of those damn things as we can possibly cram into a product. Always, more.

But, here’s the sad truth:

More does not equal better

The more we do, the faster we work. The faster we work, the more mistakes we make. We are human, after all. Not machines. And even machines fry under loads that they weren’t designed for. They smoke and die. Or steam, like an overheated car engine.

What makes us humans believe we were designed to endure insane workloads? Split our focus among a dozen “priorities”? The idea that we can fully operate at near-100% of our mental and physical capacity under the guise of “more” is flawed to its very core. More creates burnout.

And I don’t know about you, but I hate frying. Tell me, has any of your organizations successfully navigated the not-so-complex waters of essentialism? Doing few things well? Identifying a single priority? Eliminating, not adding, nonsense to your everyday employment life?

How many management presentations were shorter than you expected, not longer? How many suited presenters yielded the remainder of their time due to sheer efficiency of message rather than overrunning their allotment?

A few additional notables from the Essentialism book:

On page 121:

Cooperation deteriorates
when there is a lack of purpose.

On page 159:

The latin root of the word
decision
means “to cut”, or ” to kill”.

On page 181:

I know someone who always thinks it will take her five minutes to get to the store because she made the journey in five minutes once.

On page 230:

Essentialism isn’t just about success. It’s about meaning and purpose.

We track our net worth using Personal Capital



Comments

44 responses to “Every company I’ve worked for fails the Essentialism test”

  1. I feel like in society today that people ultimately want to be busy. Oh I’m busy with this priority or I’m busy doing this. The busier someone is the more important and purpose they feel. When in reality that isn’t the case. They are being busy to be busy instead of looking for ways to become more efficient in life. That’s really what I try to strive for. Be as efficient as possible so that I have as much time for myself as possible.

    • Totally agree, MSM. I know far too many people who always try to be busy busy busy. And some who just act like their really busy but it’s hard to understand what they’re wasting their time on. Efficiency and focusing on the important thing(s) have always been important to me and I’ve always gotten good feedback for it at work.

    • Steve says:

      I think you’re exactly right, MSM. When people feel “busy”, they also feel productive. But, there have been days in the past where I was “busy”-as-hell, but didn’t feel productive one bit. Not all work was created equal!

    • Arrgo says:

      I’ve been working on the same thing over the last few years – trying to do things more efficiently so that I have more quality time for myself. Work and other life commitments were taking up all my time and energy leaving very little for me. Then its get to bed early, rinse and repeat the next day which sucks.

  2. ianbond2017 says:

    My favorite corporate practice is the predetermined time of 1 hour for a meeting. It’s like all meetings are of equal gravity and importance that requires a standard unit of time. Rarely do meetings require 10 minutes, except when 10 people are involved. Then no time is enough and it’s rare if anything gets done.

    Focus is really the critical piece of productivity for me. I also love the derivation of “priority”. It’s sad what’s happened to it the corporate world. Great reminder to make it sacrosanct in your personal life!

    • Steve says:

      “Focus is really the critical piece of productivity for me.” – Me too, Ian. An hour or two of pure, uninterrupted focus is critical to get things done for me. I tend to have spurts of ultra productivity throughout the day, and low-and-behold, they generally coincide with incredibly focused attention on my task.

  3. I am trying to get the folks I work with to understand the concept of Essentialism. We have so many programs that people have started (all with good intent), and none of them are being done well. When I point it out and remind them of the mission of the organization, they agree – but refuse to change or eliminate anything. It’s actually the main reason I am disliking my job right now. Also, tsome he people I work with are so busy trying to do other things – that their work is suffering. If you want to do a side gig (or two) – do it outside of your main work and put the focus on each, separately. You are so right – We suck at multitasking. Prioritize folks.

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Vicki. We really do suck at multitasking. I used to think that I was pretty good at it…but really, I’m not. Most of us aren’t. Single-minded focus, even though it may not “sound” all that rosy, is how we get things done.

  4. colinashby says:

    This reminds me of when I used to work in PR (public relations). At PR agencies, it’s common and expected to work 50-70 hour work weeks. The management wants more and more and more (more leads! pitch to more influencers!). It was exhausting.

    I love that Steve Jobs quote. Focus really is about honing in on something, even when you have a lot of other good ideas.

    • Steve says:

      Ah yes, “influencers”. Classic corporate buzzword that I quickly got tired of hearing! But yup, focus on a very small collection of tasks (and one at a time), and we’ll be fine. 🙂

  5. Funny you should say this. Our current CEO drives the company nuts. Why? He overcommits the entire company. His presidents have even tried to tell him so but he doesn’t listen. Ultimately everything gets done half a$&3$. Not good for the company or the employees.

    • Steve says:

      I know the type. I’m sure that worked at one point in his life…but eventually, those promises need to be fulfilled. Then, what happens? People get stressed. Customers get angry. Good workers move on to other companies. Happens all the time.

  6. TheRetirementManifesto says:

    I love the quote from Steve Jobs: “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things”, strengthened by his statement that he’s as proud of what he didn’t pursue as that which he did pursue.

    You left out a good one on Corporate America’s inability to grasp Essentialism: “Conflicting Priorities”. As if multiple priorities aren’t bad enough, let’s start introducing priorities that can’t be done simultaneously, and then not provide guidance on which one is the real priority. Arrrrgggghhhh…

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Good point, Fritz. Yes, conflicting priorities…something that happens quite a bit, but most people aren’t willing to admit that fact because, well…they are priorities! They must be done! And now. More. Always more.

  7. Thanks for sharing that the Latin root of decision is “to cut” or “to kill”. I just read “With Winning in Mind” and the author talks about decisiveness. Essentially, make the decision and move on. Don’t second guess yourself, but be flexible to adjust if necessary.

    I’m looking to cut the BS from my life and move towards a better schedule. Time management is the name of the game in 2017 with a new side consulting gig and my blog. It’s been fun, but I need to stay focused! 🙂

    • Steve says:

      True that, Erik. Time management is a crucial element in getting things done, and I am still learning what works best for me. One thing at a time…one thing at a time. 🙂

  8. Yes, I love this book!

    It can be especially tricky to fall into a trap of doing more on passion projects, simply because you feel like you must. I mean, take blogging, for instance. How many times do you see bloggers apologize for not posting more often? Unless there’s some kind of implied contact with a monetary exchange, there’s nothing to apologize for.

    • Steve says:

      That’s true, Felicity. I do often see bloggers apologize for that kind of thing…and others who spend a HELL of a lot of time on their blogs. 🙂

  9. I love this. I never considered “priority” as a singular, but you’re absolutely right. We can’t keep EVERYTHING as number-one on our list. Our brains and bodies can’t keep up with treating absolutely everything as our priority. We’d lose our damn minds (and in many ways, we already have).

  10. It’s a slightly different point, but I’m reminded of the Blaise Pascal quote that goes something like, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Editing, trimming, and focusing takes time and concerted effort. It takes a remarkable amount of leadership and courage (whether leading a company or in your own life) to focus on doing one thing exceptionally well, at the cost of many others. It’s often easier to hedge with a list of ten or a hundred so-called priorities.

    I’m curious how you see this applying to your early retiree lifestyle. Are you cutting back on various projects and activities to focus on one, or is having removed the time-suck of work enough for now?

    • Steve says:

      For me, it’s all about time management. I enjoy blogging, but I’m only doing it when I feel like I’m motivated to do so. I have a few other projects that I devote time to as well, but I don’t even attempt to multitask. Generally, I will devote entire days to a single task, then move onto something else the next day. So far it seems to be working out alright for me, but adding too much onto my plate has always been a weakness of mine.

  11. Everyone has been talking about this book! Definitely on my to-read list. I hope the library has it. I think many of the reasons you mentioned are why I want to get out of the rat race even before FI.

  12. RB40 says:

    I just got that book from the library yesterday. 🙂 I’m looking forward to reading it.
    Corporations are nuts these days. The relentless drive toward more productivity just burn people out. Having a long term career is a lot more difficult than in the past. It sounds like my wife needs to read this book. She tends to take on too much and get stressed out as the result.

    • Steve says:

      Good book, though fairly repetitive. If you’re already “in” the game of essentialism, then you could probably skim the book and get the gist. But if you’re new, then yeah – cover-to-cover. 🙂

  13. Mrs. BITA says:

    A few months ago I was working on two projects at the same time. So, lucky old me, I had two managers, each armed with a priority list. It got crazy (big surprise there), so I sat all three of us down in a room and told them the goal was to create an actual priority list. To me this meant there would be one item at position 1, another at position 2 and so on. We sat there for an hour an a half. At the end of the meeting I had a list with 2 items at priority one. Two at position two. Position three got lucky, and there was only a single thing to do there. I was the only one in the room who thought this was ridiculous.

  14. Brian says:

    I personally trying less to use the word “busy” to describe my time. I’m working with my local school district, to try and develop a personal fiance curriculum, a total of 12 different schools. All who have great individual programs on varies literacy topics, but not one school is in sync with each other. So as the students transition from elementary to middle school, and then on to high school there no consistency or common goal. It just adds to the frustration of students, parents and teachers.

    • Steve says:

      Oh, tell me about it! The lack of consistency is stark throughout the country. Apparently, some of us had personal finance education in school while young. But me? Not a single lesson, much less a class. And I supposedly went to one of the “better” school districts in the country.

  15. Must you keep reminding me of the hell I live at work ?! I just got done sharing my company’s list of 40 priorities for the year across all our divisions with my team. I felt stupid just going through them while having to mask my frustration the entire time. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with executives trying to explain the “less is more” concept. At least I have an exit strategy 😉

    • Steve says:

      Yes, yes I must! 😉

      Unfortunately, there is probably no changing your company’s policy towards so-called priorities. So, having an exit strategy is exactly the right move. You may not be able to control them, but you sure as hell can control yourself!

  16. I’ve always been a big fan of focus in my life. A long time ago I decided I couldn’t be good at everything, but I could be great a just a couple things if I practiced enough and dedicated myself.

    Basically anything that isn’t part of those ‘core’ few things gets ignored in my life…I’m trying to focusing on the things I want to be great at.

    I think it’s good to know your strengths and focus on them. Milk ’em for all their worth even if you suck at other stuff.

    Back when I was working there were always people that should have been fired a dozen times over, but never were. Why? They had some kick-ass skills in areas that no one could match. Management hated it, but they could never fire those people despite their flaws. Those skills were just too valuable.

    • Steve says:

      “A long time ago I decided I couldn’t be good at everything, but I could be great a just a couple things if I practiced enough and dedicated myself.”

      Well said, Mr. Tako, and incredibly wise. I realized that too, but it took way too long for that to happen. Better late than never I suppose. I like your stance on core interests, too. You’re cutting out the 80% of your life that would only provide 20% benefit…if that. 🙂

  17. My workplace is struggling with this right now. They want to move to agile software development, so we can release code faster/cheaper. But they haven’t changed the way they fund or manage projects. So it’s “agile”, but all the scope needs to be defined upfront. Then all the design has to be done. Then all the coding, then the testing. Oh, and every project is high priority and all the scope has to be complete in a pre-determined period of time. First, that’s Waterfall, not Agile. And second, without real prioritization, then nothings being done faster. We’re just all using agile terminology to describe our work. Ugh.

    • Steve says:

      Ah yes, “agile development”. Back when I was the director of IT, we went through the exact same process…transforming the IT department into an agile development shop. And you’re right…when management isn’t on-board, it’s tough. We put our foot down when it came to priorities. While we did have multiple priorities, one was clearly the NOW priority, while others would fall neatly behind it.

  18. Essentialism sounds like a great read, Steve.
    After the Monday I had yesterday, this is exactly what I needed to hear…The idea of quality vs. quantity has been on my mind a lot lately because of the day job. I just can’t comprehend why corporations continue to push more workloads and increase the amount of multitasking. They always continue to make your job worse instead of better. On the other hand, I’m all about streamlining and efficiency. I mean, I realize that corporations are under the pressure of shareholders. THEY CLAIM that the focus should be on quality, but contradict what was said in meetings by prioritizing numbers. The only reason I can even tolerate it is because I have alternative goals I am working towards. Thanks for the reading tip!

  19. Miss Mazuma says:

    While my job is pretty straight forward and no frills, my writing is not. Ever since you tweeted that you plan to cut your posts down to 1000 words or less as a result of reading this book I have been in a minor tailspin! I have a habit of writing long posts but have been trying to focus on being more succinct with my wording. It is very easy to let your mind run away with your words but being able to get a hold of them and mold them into a more meaningful sentence instead of a paragraph is a big challenge and one I am constantly working on. Hopefully reading this book will help with that! 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Oops. Yeah, the 1,000 word thing is definitely something that I am focused on. People tend not to read longer posts anyway…at least not as closely. People skim, and I don’t want to spend a great deal of time writing GENIUS content that might not be read by everyone. So, I cheat. I narrow down my genius and hope it works out for the best. 😉

  20. When I was in the corporate world, I was trying to promote ‘essentialism’. I would remind middle managers that seeing their employees doesn’t mean they are working hard…. i.e. ‘don’t confuse activity with accomplishment’. I also had to provide training and I would actually do it in 15 minute modules (online), and only provide the most useful information, with an additional 15 minutes for questions if anyone wanted to stay. Everyone thought I was crazy at first, but attendance soared once I did that, and so did their retention of the material. I also used to give presentations and I like to start with “no one ever said that they heard a speech that was too short”.

    I’m now practicing really hard to use essentialism in my writing, and keeping my blog posts short and powerful. “Brevity is the soul of wit”!

    One of my favorite bloggers/speakers is Derek Sivers… man, that guy can captivate you and blow your mind in 3 minutes. DerekSivers.org.

  21. CPA’s at Big 4 audit firms work similar crazy hours. Busy season can be 80 – 100 per week for several months.

    A new associate leaving at 9pm during the busy season ( even if they started the work day at 8) can be asked if they plan to continue working half-days 😉

    This is a target demographic that ER blogs need to attract.

    • Steve says:

      Wow – yeah, it’s hell during the busy season. Our tax guy says the same thing. I’d never bring myself to work in such an industry…regardless of the pay.

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