What if I told you that you could de-clutter your work life, chop down your to-do list, and get more done; all in three simple steps? Don’t believe me? Challenge accepted!

To set the stage, I’m a big fan of the Pareto Principle and I credit a lot of my successful productivity to knowing which ~20% of the work provides ~80% of the results and to ruthlessly ignoring the other ~80% of possible projects and tasks that does not. Not doing stuff has become a superpower. Busy, for the sake of being busy, has become the enemy.

The 80/20 rule of the pareto principle, illustratted

This is an illustration, and an example ;-)

How-To: De-Clutter Your Work Life

What does that look like in practice? These days, when a task comes flying my way, I ask myself a series of questions:

First, does this need to be done at all? You might be surprised the amount of things that people do every day that never needed to be done. Sometimes the person you’re talking to is simply musing, or complaining, and not actually asking you to do anything. Other times they are asking you to do something but for one reason or another that request isn’t valid. Maybe they misunderstood something that someone else said, or the situation itself. Perhaps they personally want this thing done but that desire is in conflict with the project or business objectives. Unnecessary work can come from yourself as well. Maybe you are misreading the situation, or straight up over reacting. It’s amazing how many seemingly dire situations work themselves out if you can just wait a tick, and do absolutely nothing. Many times these are the same situations in which doing something actually makes them worse.

Second, does this need to be done by me? Delegation is king. And not just for “managers” or “executives.” Smart, skilled, talented, and experienced people are all around us. Specialization is a driving force of nature (see: natural selection) and humanity’s successive technological revolutions have accelerated that force greatly. This means that there is very often someone better suited to complete work that comes your way than you are. Why not let experts do the things they are expert in? With near-instant, near-global, and nearly-free communication accessible to nearly all of us, there is no excuse not to reach out and find that expert. Should I spend my time building an addition to my home with my own hands, or should I let an expert do it? Should I work on my own car, or would that time be better spent in an area where I can provide even more value to even more people? Could the sales rep handle this customer call better than I can? Can a software developer solve this problem more elegantly, efficiently, and effectively than I could — if so, why would I expend time and effort to do a sub-par job? By just asking these two questions, you will start to de-clutter your work life – but there’s still one more step.

Third, can I automate or mechanize this away? At this point we’ve established that any remaining work must in fact be done, and must be done by us personally. Now the question turns to how. If you need to get a ton of rock to the top of a hill, you can carry it up in your hands, you can lug it up in a wheelbarrow, or you can haul it in a tractor or truck. This is the heart of that “work smarter, not harder” quote that shook my world so many years ago. I don’t have to do things the hard way. It doesn’t make me a more respectable person to hand carry a ton of rocks up a hill — it just makes me more calloused. In fact, my grandfather’s garage was filled with “grandpa gadgets.” Various tools that he had custom built himself to make specific jobs easier to do. This is the way. And if a task is to be repeated many times? Don’t just mechanize, automate! This is easier in the world of knowledge work, where you can quickly have a program written to do the needed work under your supervision; but we can build physical robots and leverage so called operational technologies that automate the “real” world too. Of course, at it’s best, automation is another form of delegation. You remain accountable for the task, but are no longer personally responsible for the actual work.

So, did I convince you? Tell you what – go try using these three questions to filter tasks and projects for the next week – then come back and leave a comment; tell us if you were able to de-clutter your work life.

Want to learn more? This is an excerpt from an essay on Medium all about the balance needed between working harder and working smarter…

Read more here: Busy is Bad: Be More Productive by Working Less

(Cover Photo by RetroSupply)

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