Focus on What Matters — Not on What’s Urgent

What are some things you should say no to right now?

Have you ever felt that you “have to” do something? Maybe you spent long hours at work because your manager said they “need” you there.

Or attended a meeting to keep up appearances. Or made decisions solely to not disappoint your parents, friends, mentors, or anyone you look up to.

This happens to all of us. I see it all the time, especially with hardworking, success-driven people.

In his book, Essentialism, George McKeown talks about the “Paradox of Success.”The more we succeed, the more we prioritize what makes us successful — and the less we prioritize what’s really important to us In this way, success becomes a distraction, sometimes without us even noticing.

How does that happen? McKeown says it comes in 4 phases.

Phase 1: We have a clear purpose, which helps us succeed at what we do. This might be a degree, a promotion, or a new business.

Phase 2: Our success makes us a reliable “go-to” person in our field. We build a good reputation. People start coming to us. We receive more options, more opportunities.

Phase 3: More options and opportunities mean more demands on our time and energy. We don’t want to let people down. We want to maintain our success or become even more successful. So we keep saying yes to these demands and spread ourselves thin.

Phase 4: We become distracted. We chase shiny objects. Our focus and energy are scattered. We’re overwhelmed. And we can’t perform at a high level because we’re doing too many things to be able to give any one project 100%.

At this rate, people suffer burnout and companies go bust. Why? Because their motivation has changed.

You don’t “have to” do most things

It’s easy to let work become your identity. Especially if you feel that other people rely on you: Co-workers, clients, students, readers. And when you get positive feedback from others, you feel like you’re doing important and productive work.

At some point, you just feel like you have to do too many things or your identity will suffer.

The truth is that not everything is important. It just can’t be. If everything is important, nothing is.

In Essentialism, McKeown talks about a Silicon Valley executive who recently sold his company to a larger, bureaucratic business. He went through the 4 phases above: His success brought him more offers and opportunities and, to maintain his success, he kept saying yes to these demands.

He’d rush from one meeting to another, trying to please everyone, trying to get it all done. His stress went up. The quality of his work went down. And he felt unsatisfied, frustrated. People seemed harder and harder to please.

Eventually, the company offered him an early-retirement package. It was his wake-up call. He didn’t want to retire yet. And the executive realized he had to cut some of his responsibilities. He asked his mentor for advice. The mentor advised him to work only on the things he deemed essential. The executive started saying no to more opportunities and options.

What are some things you should say no to right now? Ask yourself the following question before saying yes to anything that demands your time and energy.

“Will this task, goal, priority, or decision bring me closer to my current top priorities?”

What is truly important to you? What are our top priorities right now when it comes to our health, relationships, and work? Everyone knows we can’t do everything at the same time. We have to make choices.

Let’s say you’re a freelance designer aiming to build your own brand. Then a design company offers you a lucrative but time-consuming job that won’t allow you to work on your side business. Should you take it?

If you’re buried in debt and struggling financially, your top priority might be to gain some financial stability for now. The job offer is likely the best choice. But if you don’t need money that badly, then your time and energy are better invested in your brand. Everything depends on what matters to you at the moment.

We all tend to desire more, as quickly as possible. So going back to our main purpose and motivation can help us cut out non-essentials.

Less but better

In his book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explores how various promising companies on Wall Street failed. Most of these companies had one thing in common: “The undisciplined pursuit of more.”

Isn’t that also true for our lives? We keep pursuing more.It’s easy to get caught up in our daily lives that we fail to assess the real urgency of things. Everything may feel important even if that’s not the case.

For example, reading up on all the emails and messages in your oganization might feel urgent because you need to stay informed. But all the while, you haven’t been investing any time in your skills so you can perform better. What’s more important? Reading emails you’re cc’d on? Or blocking an afternoon for taking an online course or reading a book?

When you’re overwhelmed or confused by all your tasks, I recommend taking a quick, 5-minute break. Pause and ask yourself the question: Will this bring me closer to my current top priorities?

Consider focusing only on the habits, activities, and goals that will get you there.

When I was running daily a few years ago, I knew I wanted to run a marathon “someday.” But not in the next 5 — 8 months. So I didn’t feel bad if I wasn’t spending more hours and effort in my training. I kept a comfortable pace and mileage that suited my goals right now — not for a goal I wanted in the far future.

So keep on defining what’s essential for you. Try saying no to “opportunities” or options you don’t need. The truth is we can achieve many things in life. Just not all at the same time.

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