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9 Steps to Work Less and Do More
By Stever Robbins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Stever Robbins
All rights reserved.
LIVE ON PURPOSE
Here's the number one principle and our first step to working less in your life: Stop doing stuff that doesn't help you reach your goals. It sounds simple, doesn't it? It's a shame almost no one does it. The most common way we work more and do less is by working on the wrong stuff. We spend our time doing, doing, doing, even if the doing has nothing to do with our goals, business, or life. Surely I'm not the only one who has spent five hours a day spewing one-line nonsense "status updates" on my favorite social media Web site, and then wondered why I'm running so hard just to stay in the same place.
Of course, it's much easier to say "work on what's important" than it is to do it. In this first step to working less and doing more we will explore how lacking clarity about our goals both at work and at home can be our doom. I will help you overcome this problem so that you never waste time working on the wrong stuff ever again — or at least not when you follow my advice. In this chapter you will learn how to identify your ultimate goals for every situation. Then I'll explain how you can develop a life map so you'll know when you're on track and when you're just fooling yourself with busywork.
You can get hijacked into nonsense-land when you don't know what you want. Before you can streamline life, you must know your goals. If you don't know where you're going, you can't make getting there effortless. When you know your destination, you can chart a course in advance. Moment-by-moment, you can make sure you're doing things that take you where you want to go. Otherwise, all your activity is nothing more than busy-ness.
We'll start by making sure we're doing the right things. It's not always obvious, though sometimes your gut tells you there's got to be a better way. My friend Michael discovered that as a parent.
Michael was mortified. His teenager Skyler's room was, to put it mildly, like an antechamber from the inner circle of heck: strange growths on the walls, mysterious smells belching forth from unidentifiable piles beneath the bed. At night, shrieking cries could be heard from behind the closed bedroom door (is that what kids today call music?). Michael's solution was simple: Ask Skyler to clean up. When that didn't work, he offered video games as bribes. And when that didn't work, he resorted to yelling. Soon, Michael was nearing a nervous breakdown. Skyler, however, just turned up the stereo one notch and went back to whatever it is that teenagers do inside their lairs.
As Michael told this story, I tried to imagine his life. My time is spent dancing through life, smelling daffodils and singing songs. Michael's time is spent obsessing about his teenager's room. He plots and plans and bribes. When we have lunch, he hardly notices my unbelievably witty and insightful conversation. Instead, he moans about his son the whole time. As if living with the youngster wasn't bad enough, he must relive every agonizing moment out loud. Michael realized something wasn't working about the situation, but he had no idea what to do. He was providing a living case study of the most important thing you'll ever learn: The key to working less is being on purpose.
Michael doesn't wake up thinking, "My life purpose is having a kid with a clean bedroom." At some point, he decided a clean bedroom was important. He thought it was the path to some other goal. Sadly, he's forgotten the other goal and is fixated on the whole room thing. This happens to all of us — we get distracted and lose sight of our ultimate goals. We decide we want to finish that project at work by tomorrow, so we e-mail our coworker Bernice to get her notes on the project. Her response is so engaging that six hours later, we suddenly realize we've had a fabulous bonding experience with Bernice and done no work on the report.
YOU NEED TO IDENTIFY YOUR GOALS
The first step in living on purpose is to get really good at identifying goals. Big goals, little goals, medium-sized goals. Everything you do at any moment has a bunch of goals attached. You see, goals don't hang out alone; they travel in packs. Really big goals — like "be successful" — are made up of subgoals. Those are made up of smaller subgoals, and so on. Finally at the bottom are specific, concrete actions. But all these subgoals offer enticing diversions where we can conveniently get off course, giving us the chance to waste time and energy. If a subgoal wanders off course, so do we, and we never get what we want. If your highest-level work goal was to be successful at work, the following table will show you how your goals might break down.
Michael's love of clean teenage bedrooms isn't one of his highest-level goals, it's a subgoal of some larger goal. My guess: Michael's high-level goal is to be a good parent. He believes he has to do that by teaching his son to be a responsible adult (which is a subgoal). And his parents brainwashed him into thinking that being a responsible adult means having a clean bedroom, which led to his action of yelling at Skyler to clean the bedroom.
Someone else with the same high-level goal of being a good parent might have different subgoals and use different actions as a result. Their subgoal might be to spend quality time with their kid and their action might be talking to their kid about school at dinner. Or perhaps they would play baseball together, or go out for manicures together, or play baseball and go out for manicures together. Heck, if it were me, I think teaching your kid to be a responsible adult means letting a kid keep their room however they want it, and letting them deal with the consequences when the pizza grows legs. Whatever your subgoals and actions, they'd better match your big goal. Otherwise while trying to be a good parent, you risk pulling a Michael. You'll spend your quality together-time yelling at your child and making them hate you.
This mismatch between goals and actions is hardly limited to parenting. One company I worked with had an overall goal of making it easy for an entire industry to adopt a new technology. A subgoal was raising funds from the board of directors, which included some prominent financiers. Their fund-raising subgoal's action was developing a prototype product to show the board. The investors would be so dazzled that they would write a big fat check. The prototype took on a life of its own, however. Even after money was raised, it lived on as an entirely separate project. It kept sucking up time and resources without contributing one bit to the original goal of building a product customers would buy. Here's how their goals broke down:
MAKE SURE YOUR ACTIONS MATCH YOUR GOALS
Living on purpose means stopping to make sure your actions still match your big goals. But you need to keep the big picture in mind to do this. Without knowing your higher-level goals, you don't know whether your actions are helping.
To understand why the big picture is important, let's consider the time-honored, time-wasting tradition, the status meeting. You might think its purpose is obvious: Share status. Yes, but what's the goal of sharing status? What's the higher-level goal here? Is it to coordinate when one person's work depends on another's? Is it to build team cohesion? Is it to brainstorm solutions to project emergencies? Is it to have an excuse to eat fat-free, low-cal, diet donuts and decaf coffee? Without knowing the goals above "share status," it's hard to know if the meetings are even useful. If we're sharing status to coordinate — a higher-level goal — but people are already coordinating via e-mail, then the meeting is useless. Knowing the higher-level goals helps make sure our actions are still moving us forward.
If you know your higher goals off the top of your head, great! Knowing that will clue you in about what your lower-level subgoals and actions should be. It doesn't work in reverse, though. Knowing a lower-level action or subgoal gives you no clue about the larger goals. At least not until you ask "Why?"
When you get buried in details is when you risk wasting time on actions that won't actually help you reach your subgoals, high-level goals, or both. Asking why you are doing something serves as a check and always moves your focus back to the big picture. Asking why helps you find out if your actions have come unglued from your goals. In theory, you could do this as often as every day, reviewing your to-do list to make sure it ties to your bigger goals. In my perfect fantasy world, I check my actions against my goals every day. In real life, once a week or once every other week is more realistic.
Use a Goal Ladder to Check Your Actions and Goals
You can build a goal ladder around your actions to check them. A goal ladder is a quick, written recognition of how your actions and subgoals link to your larger goals. It lists your actions, the goals the action is trying to reach, the goals of that goal, and so on.
Poor Michael is yelling at his kid. That tells us nothing about his goals. Maybe he's worried the room is a health hazard. Or he has extradimensional sensitivity to messy rooms within a one-hundred-yard radius. Or maybe he's seeking unconscious revenge for the years he spent as a father when he really wanted to be pursuing an Olympic gold medal in squeegee juggling. We can build Michael's goal ladder by asking "Why?" to find his subgoals and highest-level goals.
"Why are you so concerned about Skyler's room?" I ask. "Because," Michael replies, "Skyler needs to learn to be responsible. That's my job as a parent, after all."
Aha! Michael just confirmed our earlier theory that he's really trying to be a good parent. Here's his whole goal ladder around yelling at Skyler:
Main goal Be a good parent.
Subgoal Teach kids to be responsible adults.
Action Demand kid clean room.
Now that it's starkly on paper, Michael can make sure his actions are meeting his ultimate goal of being a good parent. He does this by starting at his topmost goal and asking "How can I reach this goal?" If his answer isn't the same as his actions, he's found a mismatch. Here's what we found when I stepped him through the questions.
"Michael, how can you be a good parent?" I ask. "By helping Skyler become a responsible adult," he replies. So far, so good. His subgoal matches, so we know there's alignment, at least in Michael's mind. Let's go one more level.
"And how can you help Skyler become a responsible adult?"
"By letting Skyler make his own decisions and accept responsibility for the consequences."
Isn't that interesting? Michael didn't say, "By demanding Skyler clean his room." He wants Skyler to make decisions and accept the consequences. That's exactly what's happening! Skyler is deciding to have a messy room. He's handling the consequences, a yelling father, by turning the volume on his stereo up to eleven. But because he forgot his larger goals, Michael didn't notice he was achieving them.
Letting go of his room-cleaning fetish and redesigning his goal ladder so that it reflects his actual subgoals would serve Michael well. If he ignores his true subgoals and clings to the wrong actions, it will lead to nothing but trouble. He'll spend years in conflict. Skyler will move out and become independent, and instead of reigniting his Olympic ambitions, Michael will blow his savings on therapy to deal with having such an ungrateful offspring. Skyler will keep a neat apartment once there's no parent to rebel against, and life will go on. Michael's problem is that his goal ladder wasn't aligned.
When you feel dissatisfied, or when you're working too hard, the problem could be a mismatch between your goals and actions. Write out your goal ladder and make sure it all lines up. First start with your actions and ask "Why?" to find your subgoals. Keep asking why until you map up to your larger-level goals, at least two or three levels.
Now double-check the alignment by starting at the top. Ask "How can I reach this?" but don't peek at your existing subgoals or actions, just answer. Then look at your subgoals. If your answer doesn't match, you know your subgoals have become unhinged from your real goal. Then also look at your actions. If your actions don't ultimately jibe with your highest-level goals, your actions aren't working, either. Now either change your top-level goal or begin changing your subgoals and actions until they're in alignment.
Before getting better at what you're doing — which we'll get to later — you must make sure what you're doing matches all your goals and subgoals! Otherwise you'll just get better at doing the wrong thing. Getting better at doing the right thing is the key to working less and doing more. So let's discuss how to identify the goals at the top, which drive your entire goal ladder.
HOW TO IDENTIFY YOUR TOP GOALS
You may know what your own personal top-level goal is, but at work, the top goals come from the organization. It's usually called a vision or mission. The subgoals are strategic initiatives, and below that are projects or goals. Different companies have different names for them. All that's important is that they point you in the direction of meeting the topmost goals. If you were working for a financial software company, your goals might break down like this:
If your actions don't match your projects, or your project doesn't fit the strategy, you can work your butt off and it won't help the company one bit. In fact, when earnings dip next, executives will scramble to "return to their core business." They will notice your project isn't adding value and lay you off, with genuine tears of dismay. At bonus time, they'll tearfully collect a bonus of 190 percent of their already-inflated base salary for having the strength to oversee such unpleasant and regretful layoffs. It will never cross their mind that it was their job to keep the organization aligned in the first place.
If you're in a management position you can align your organization using the same tools we just used with Michael. Ask the people who actually do the work, "Why are you doing this?" Then ask their managers, and their managers, and their managers. You will end up with a neat map of what everyone thinks they should be doing.
Then do a sanity check. Make sure that if you ask "How?" to the biggest goals, the answer is at least vaguely related to the organization's subgoals. In most places, you'll find a mismatch — or several — somewhere along the way. A top goal may be "to provide excellent medical care for patients," and one of the intermediary goals may be "cut costs by 15 percent," which is being carried out by skimping on care quality, an action that clearly doesn't fit in with the top goal. If you find the conflict, but can't make it right yourself, your best bet is probably to work toward both the top and intermediary goals, knowing they can come into conflict. When you must choose between them, the choice is yours. The idealist in me says to do what's right for the patients. My realist says to do what's right for the patient, within the cost-cutting constraints. My cynic says to hunker down and cut costs, since the chances of anyone you know personally being killed by your inferior medical care are small enough that you can afford to ignore the moral implications of your actions and retreat into the justification that you would lose your job if you disregarded cost-cutting. And your job, presumably, is more important than someone else's life.
Remember our employees who created a prototype that became a completely separate development effort for their board of directors? If they had stopped to identify their goal in hour ten of the prototype, they would have realized that there were better uses of their time. For example, building a real product that would help their customers adopt the new technology in their industry.
Excerpted from Get-It-Done Guy's by Stever Robbins. Copyright © 2010 Stever Robbins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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