Manage your to-do list by doing less, not more

Like many people, it’s easy for me to get caught up in my aspirations for more — a bigger home, more money, greater success.

Harvard Business Review‘s article, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, challenges that. Instead of more [fill in the blank with whatever you are chasing here], focus on the right things.

Author Greg McKeown starts by defining “the clarity paradox:”

  • Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
  • Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
  • Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
  • Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Then he suggests three ways to fight the clarity paradox … I’ve given an extremely condensed version:

1. Use more extreme criteria. Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. We can do the same with our career choices.

2. Ask “What is essential?” and eliminate the rest. Everything changes when we give ourselves permission to eliminate the nonessentials. At once, we have the key to unlock the next level of our lives.

3. Beware of the endowment effect. Also known as the divestiture aversion, the endowment effect refers to our tendency to value an item more once we own it.  Tom Stafford describes a cure for this that we can apply to career clarity: Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” And the same goes for career opportunities. We shouldn’t ask, “How much do I value this opportunity?” but “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”

Check out the full story on HBR here.  And connect with Greg McKeown, CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency in Silicon Valley, on Twitter @GregoryMcKeown.
I’ve been thinking in the new year about tasks and responsibilities on my to-do list that I should eliminate — but McKeown is challenging our decisions at a higher level. First you have to examine whether you’re doing the right job, for example, before you prioritize your activities.

Categories: career, lifestyle

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3 replies

  1. Hey Colleen, This is Alan typing from Susan’s iPad. I must say I only look at your blog occasionally, and each time I’m struck by the very purposefull life you live and it always starts me thinking in those terms when I read it. I’m actually taking the metaphor of overstuffed closets literally and cleaning out everything I haven’t worn for a year tomorrow. I’m so glad that we met u and John those many years ago. Lately I’ve been telling friends that I love, that I love them. So I must tell you and John that I love you.both
    Because a word unspoken
    Is the cruelest joke.
    It haunts the one that never spoke.
    And the other person never knows,
    Of all the love
    That never.shows

    • Right back at you, Alan — our lives are so much richer because we were lucky enough to pick the same Amsterdam bed and breakfast many years ago.
      I’m honored if I’m helping inspire you, since we aspire to be you and Susan when we grow up.
      We love you and we’re glad to have you in our lives.


  1. It’s Just Stuff | Life is Mysterious

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