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  • Writer's pictureMike Sonneveldt

De-clutter your life: essentialism



woman holds up a sign that says "Help" while two co-workers are requesting a lot from her

All of us make a grievous mistake at some point in our careers.  


Your boss approaches your desk with a new project that just has to be done immediately. Mind you, he came yesterday with another one of “those projects.” The day before, he harped about the three other projects that were “a major priority.” Somehow, you have become the receptacle for any and all projects. But you pat yourself on the back, believing you must be very trusted! 


We tell ourselves that if we take on these tasks, we'll win the favor of our bosses, our coworkers, our family, and ourselves. We believe that the end of the tunnel offers so much more if we could only nail that side project our boss dropped in our lap last second. 

 

Setting a Goal 

A great book titled Essentialism, written by Greg McKeown distills this particular idea down into an "essential" value. By all means, go buy this book. It is well worth the read. (Note: This is not a paid advertisement, but an independent recommendation) 

Let’s revisit you at your desk as your boss asks for another project to be done right away. Pause for a second and ask yourself a very important question, "Does this point me towards or away from my goal?"


Failing to have a clear goal or vision produces a dangerous environment. We open ourselves up to an overload of opportunities. In other words, if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything. However, the stronger you feel about a vision or goal, the more protective you'll be to achieve it. This means that you may have to have an uncomfortable conversation with your boss when he drops a side project on your desk at the last second.  


I'm not saying this is easy, but it's necessary. If you do not protect your time with passion and energy, then your time WILL become devoured by those around you who desire their own goals to be achieved. You must determine your time’s value.

Unfortunately, we all too often undervalue our time. This means your boss, co-workers, family members, and friends will all undervalue your time as well. Every yes you speak gives them what they want, and often at the expense of what you actually desire. 


Warren Buffett is famous for saying, “Say no to almost everything.” And he’s not wrong. Each no provides space for us to pursue those things we actually desire. Unfortunately, we often have no confidence to say “No” to something because we don’t know what we actually want to say yes to. 


This means your first step in learning how to properly value your time is determining what your goal is. Whether you want to truly fulfill your job description, create a business, or go after a dream, you need to know that final goal and plan the steps accordingly. The more you remove the needless and useless distractions, the faster you will achieve that goal. 


However, if you at least understand where you want your boundaries, you can take the next step: cleaning out the clutter. 

 

How to Say No 

At one point, I had a boss who thought nothing of eating up an employee’s time. He threw more and more projects on my plate with no recognition of my own time and priorities. Why? Because when things crossed his mind, he wanted them done immediately. 


As a team, we would sometimes ignore his requests, knowing that we could complete a particular project later. When he cornered weak or passive co-workers about the random priority on his mind, they were run over like turtles on the road. He would make an urgent request (it was always urgent and a top priority) and then railroad them into spending late nights and weekends taking care of what he felt could not wait a single moment. Their inability to clearly define their goal resulted in mountains of extra work and sacrifices of personal lives. 


I vowed to be different.  


I knew that if I wanted a chance to complete my own responsibilities, I would have to change the dynamic of how things got completed. 


At first, I requested that he carefully decide which tasks deserved top priority status. I clarified to him that it was confusing because every five minutes a new top priority was determined. The problem was, what he thought he heard was, "I'm not smart enough to figure out priorities on my own, so please tell me how important every task is, and how every task needs to get done right away." 


This resulted in some embarrassingly condescending conversations in which he spelled out slowly and carefully how important the random task of the day was for the good of the company. 


I went back to the drawing board. I knew I needed a more direct approach. Overnight, I understood my problem. My attempt at passively negotiating the situation had only made it worse. 


So, I took a risk and artistically employed the stout, powerful, and convincing "NO." At times, I had to bite with both words and tone to help him see my priority list. While remaining respectful, I made sure he clearly understood that I would not be able to take on that project. Sometimes, I made my voice heard with a hard, direct, and powerful "No. I will not do that today. I will take care of it tomorrow." 


However, I always showed that I understood my role and responsibility. If it was a task within my job description, I did my best to always provide a time in which I knew it could get done. 


This quickly shrank the number of useless jobs he wanted done. As he continued to learn my new-found boundaries, those projects magically left my table and went to another more willing and passive co-worker. 


When the task truly needed top priority or a sacrifice from me was a reasonable request, I stepped up. My boss gained a deeper, more thorough respect for me and my abilities. Bigger responsibilities were put on my plate with fewer invasive phone calls or visits. He grew to trust me when I said "No," while giving him a time frame in which I could complete his request. 

 

The Power of Essentialism 

Essentialism is learning how to protect your time, your energy, your focus, your talent, and your efforts. The secret to essentialism is trusting that people will respect you for your clear boundaries. They'll come to recognize that you know what you're doing, you have your vision/goal, and that you are determined to achieve it. More importantly, they’ll come to understand that your goal is in the best interest of the company. 


Extremely successful people understand the art of "No," or "Not now." 


Founder and former CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, sets a day each week to handle a department or segment of the business. For instance, he set Monday for something like internal management, Tuesday for products, Wednesday for marking, and so forth. People came to respect his schedule so much, that they determined their entire week's schedule around his. 


Now, while you may not be able to shift the entire company’s work schedule, you may be able to craft expectations from your boss and co-workers. 


Unfortunately, we struggle with doing this. We tend to fear the unknown. When looking at something like Jack Dorsey's schedule, we may ask, "But what if a marketing emergency happens on Monday?" The most leader-esque answer possible would follow, "That's what I hired the marketing department to do." 


You and all your co-workers were hired to do a job. It's time to put the responsibilities back in their hands and let them work. Imagine your staff handles a major issue and when you come back, they say how they solved it. While this may make a micromanager quake with fear, a true leader beams at the knowledge that they’ve raised up a quality staff. Such an event grows their confidence as well as your pride and trust in their abilities. 


But what if it is your boss who always messes up your schedule? 


Perhaps they need to realize they rely on you too much. If they do not have their priorities together, the shortcoming falls back on you. Always being bailed out will keep them fat, happy, lazy, and sleepy. Over time, you bend further and further under the load they stack on your back. Every time you question it, they'll give you a small high five and tell you how great you are for carrying such a big load. After all, you trained them to count on you bailing them out. 

 


Are You Convicted? 

If you feel convicted, then good. So do I. Our inability to protect our time and priorities only proves we do not value them and therefore neither should anyone around us. But if you value these things and protect them, the people around you will too. 

 


How To Protect Your Time 

1) Determine your biggest priorities in life. If you have a spouse and/or kids, then those should be a guaranteed top item on your list. Your children did not ask to be brought into this world. Your spouse made a commitment to be a part of your life. They need you and they need your quality attention. You can balance a successful career and a family, but you must understand you only have 24 hours in the day. If 16 are spent at the office, you only have eight at home. Subtract sleep and travel time, and you realistically have no time with your family. 


Your other priorities are up to you. Figure out what truly matters in life and pursue it with vigor. If your career is an area of deep purpose for you, then shape your priorities to make sure that your career and where you want to take your future are placed at the top of the list. 


2) Recognize the dangerous time-sucks. Our belief that every project in our career will get us to the top often drags us down. Think logistically. 100% effort, focus, and detail on 5 projects a year beats out 60% on 20 projects every time. 


I’ve been a part of organizations that did not have a clear vision and focus. We suffered because we split our efforts between too many projects by hoping something might stick. Only when we cleared our schedules and really nailed down the biggest priority did things move forward.


3) Draw your boundaries. Be clear about your boundaries. If you need every Wednesday night off for your kid’s soccer games, then defend it with passion. And trust me, your boundaries CAN and WILL get tested. Bosses want to see if you actually meant it or not. 


4) Practice the art of the confident “No.” Do not apologize. Do not hedge with doubt or uncertain language. 


Stating things like “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” or “I don’t think I can today,” gives an aggressive boss or co-worker an opening. Be firm in your “No.” Only explain what is necessary. And if pushback comes your way, stand your ground all the more. If you say “No,” but then easily back away from your position, then they’ll know that A) You weren’t serious and B) They can pressure you into what they want next time.  

 

Try Essentialism 

Essentialism seems counterproductive to some people. They envision taking on every task that comes their way and believe that focusing on everything all at once makes them extremely productive. In reality, they take five times as long on each project, stress out juggling them, and at the end of the day, move very little.


Maybe you feel confident in your ability to handle multiple priorities. However, we all need a chance to clean out the closet of our lives. You need to take account of what is important to you. You may be holding onto something that only slows you down. When you begin believing you need it just in case, it will own you.  


So, practice essentialism. Clearly define your goals. Clean your proverbial house. Get to the next level. 

 


Mike Sonneveldt is the founder of The Forged, an organization dedicated to the development of men through body, soul, and Spirit. His bookBecome Forged – Maximizing Masculinity provides a toolbox to help men fully actualize themselves and their purpose. Using a Christian lens, Mike provides guidance, program development, and mentorship for both Christian men and non-Christian men alike. 

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