Do Fewer Things, Better

I’m going to tell you a secret.  I have a very simple, 4-word strategic plan (devised it a few years ago).

Here it is…

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Do fewer things, better.

This has made my life — and my work, dramatically better.

Here’s how I execute on my strategic plan:

1. Decide on what matters the most.

2. Say no to everything else.

3. When something falls in the gray area, re-read #2.

Of course, that’s easier to say than do. I fail at it all the time — but I’m getting better.  Here are some tips learned from years of practice:

1. Forgive yourself for having to say “no” to things that are worthy, but not on your “fewer things” list that matter the most.  Years ago, I wrote a blog post asking public forgiveness , you can see it here at http://MustSayNo.com.  Of all the articles I’ve ever written, that

has had the most positive impact on my life. 

2. Remember that every time you say “no” to something you might have said “yes” to, it frees up time to focus on the things that matter.  And the more time you spend on the things that matter, the better you get at them.  Let me give you an example:  Let’s say you say “no” to some project/request/idea that would have “only” taken a few hours a month, because it didn’t make the “few things that matter” list.  And, let’s say that one of the things that matter to you is being able to better communicate your message to the world — via public speaking.  Those few hours you “saved” can be spent on getting your message out. More speaking gigs, more people influenced.  But wait!  That’s not all!  Not only are you able to do some more public speaking, because you’re going to spend more time on it, you’re going to get better at it.  And, because you get better at it, you’re going to get more frequent speaking invites.  With larger audiences.  And have more influence once you’re on stage.  You’re building leverage by getting better and better at the thing that matters.  And, it’s amazing how much better you will get, once you decide on only a few things to get better at.

By the way, the reverse of this is true to:  Everytime you say “yes” to something, you’re saying “no” to something else.  Often, you’re saying “no” to something more important.

2. Fight the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) emotion.  It’s a killer. We all have it to varying degrees.  This fear that if we don’t say “yes” to something, we’re going to miss out on some big opportunity, small joy or new connection.  Yes, sometimes you will miss out, but that’s OK.  Life goes on.  On average, you will be better off skipping some things, instead of trying to do too much.  

More people fail from a gluttony of good activities than from being starved of them. 

3.  Start with a low-level of abstraction.  Resist the temptation to make your list really “high-level”.  As an extreme example, one of the things on your priority list shouldn’t be “Be successful”.  That’s so broad, that you’d be able to rationalize almost every activity under the sun.  Try to be specific enough that the number of things that “fit” is a manageable number.  If you find yourself taking on too much (which you probably do), refine your filters and move to a lower-level of abstraction.  I’ve written an article on this that you might find useful:  “The Power of Focus and The Peril of Myopia“.   

4. Try to solve for outcome, not activity.  Figure out what you want to happen (whether it be a commercial interest or a philanthropic one), and figure out how to best create impact.  Usually, optimal outcomes are not achieved by saying “yes” to a bunch of “good” activities (however well-intentioned).

On the point of philanthropy, you might be wondering: “What about doing good, and giving back?”  

Warning: My opinion here may be controversial for some.  

First off, if you have the ability to give back, you should do so.  No doubt.  But the question is, how do you optimimize for outcome?  

Let me explain with a personal example.  I’m an entrepreneur.  Have been for most of my professional career.  I LOVE STARTUPS. THEY BRING ME GREAT JOY. I’m one of the co-founders of HubSpot (NYSE:HUBS).  I’m also a big fan of Boston and want to see the Boston startup ecosystem grow and thrive.

But a few years ago, I decided to dramatically limit the time I spend directly helping the Boston ecosystem.

Why would I do this?  Isn’t that selfish?  Yes, it is.

The reason I made this decision was that I felt the best way for me to help the startup ecosystem — was to do my best to help make HubSpot a super-successful company.  The by-product of that success will be much greater than what I’d get if I were just directly trying to help a handful of startups.  

So far, HubSpot has had some modest success.  We are a publicly traded now and have 1,000+ people working at the company.  We have many that have “graduated” HubSpot and gone off to start their own companies.  Even more are taking the things they learned and applying them to other companies.  We’ve also made a bunch of people money (several of whom are channeling some of that back into to the ecosystem by way of angel investing). We’ve helped pull talent in from around the world — and keep some of our star talent in the Boston area.  We’ve improved Boston’s “brand” as being a place where big tech companies can be built (which helps pull in more capital, talent and interest).  All in, I’d say we’re a net positive.

But, fact remains that instead of being a mentor/advisor/mensch — I’ve sort of been a schmuck.  I’ve said “no” to just about everything unless it helped HubSpot.  And remember, I LOVE STARTUPS.  I love helping them.  I love the thrill, joy and fulfillment.  But, I said “no” anyways.  And, I may be rationalizing here — but I think I’ve likely done more for the ecosystem than if I had simply gone to more events, tried to pick a handful of startups to be an advisor/mentor for, etc.  

This section got much longer than I planned for it to be.  I have a whole other article in draft-mode titled “The Surgeon In The Soup Kitchen”.  I’ll give you the abridged message of that post:

Don’t favor what feels the most good.  Favor what does the most good.  

Thankfully, blogging is a high-leverage activity.  And, since I’m using HubSpot to write/promote/track this article, it helps HubSpot too.  So, I can rationalize onto my “fewer things” list (but only every now and then).

Cheers, and best wishes with your “fewer things”.