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The art of the essential: doing less and achieving more

The key to managing a business – and a life – is balance, and that means identifying which tasks to prioritise and which to delegate, or abandon altogether, writes DAVID BROWN.

Each year, the highlight of the Hollywood awards season is the Oscars, and the most prestigious award each night goes to Best Picture.

Among the other awards handed out on the night is Best Film Editing. Although not given the attention of Best Picture, there is an extraordinarily strong correlation between the two.

In fact, between 1981 and 2013 there wasn’t a single Best Picture winner that hadn’t also been nominated for Best Film Editing; two-thirds of the Best Film Editing winners went on to receive the Best Picture award too.

Clearly, good editing is an important part of delivering a quality final product – and the same is true in business.

As Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, once said, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”

The ability to cut through to the essential is a pre-requisite to achieving optimal results and profit for your business.

Like a good film editor, an effective manager has an ability to remove the noise and clutter that can so often distract from gaining the optimum results and allow the focus to be on the things that matter.

Cut it out

Despite knowing this, we can at times allow ourselves to be distracted by the urgent and the unplanned.

We can be guilty of considering several different things our ‘number-one’ priority which, by definition, is impossible.

We tend to impose too many choices on ourselves, our staff, and our customers, to the detriment of all – when the real solution is fewer things done better.

Fortunately, there are several steps managers can take that will help eliminate the problem – and it lies in cutting through to the essential:

• Reduce job descriptions – Asking staff to perform unnecessary tasks serves as a distraction and stops them understanding your core objectives.

Look at who is doing what and how they are delivering; for those tasks that need to be done, are they in the hands of the right person? You can only proceed at the pace of the slowest hiker so make sure that each person is given the right jobs for the skills they possess.

Additionally, ask your staff what tasks they feel they do that are unnecessary. The answers may be very revealing!

• Reduce customer options – The most effective place to demonstrate a ‘less is more’ policy is in the choices you offer your customers.

Contrary to what you might think, more choice does not lead to more sales.

In fact, research has shown that less choice can lead to quicker decisions, as opposed to the ‘overwhelm’ that can occur when people are presented with an abundance of alternatives.

Do we really need to see 23 different brands of sauce before we make a choice?

With this level of selection, we’re more likely to just give up – as are your customers if you present them with too many options.

• Remove bottlenecks and time constraints – Eliminating the unnecessary steps from your systems and procedures will speed up processes and prevent costly delays.

Simply put, a process with 15 steps is more likely to be abandoned than one with three.

Once you have focused on these areas, it’s time to reflect on your own role and management style.

Refocusing energy

Having more than one priority – at a time – will, frequently, lead to nothing being achieved.

As a business owner, what does your job description say? Do you even have one?

Perhaps you are guilty of taking on too much or unsuccessfully trying to multi- task various things you assume to be essential, without really asking yourself if they are necessary at all.

If there’s one trend that doesn’t appear to be diminishing, it’s the tendency for more and more hours to be spent on the job.

“Research has shown that less choice can lead to quicker decisions, as opposed to the ‘overwhelm’ that can occur when people are presented with an abundance of alternatives.”

A recent study by Harvard Business School showed that more than 90 per cent of professionals spend more than 50 hours at work, with approximately 50 per cent spending more than 65 hours per week doing their job.

The trend for business owners is unlikely to be any different – after all, the buck stops with the person who leaves last.

With ever-more demanding work schedules, it becomes increasingly difficult for many business owners to drop out of business mode.

Even weekends at home are spent dealing with phone calls or thinking about problems waiting at the office.

Over time this can start to take a toll on mind-set, productivity, and health.

The problem necessitates cutting away the unnecessary in order to focus energy on the necessary; as Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me an hour to chop a tree and I will spend the first 45 minutes sharpening the axe.”

In order to be an effective leader while looking after your health, you must sharpen and oil your metaphorical axe on a regular basis.

The first step is to stop trying to achieve perfection. No matter how hard you try, things will never be perfect and expecting it can lead to frustration and stress.

In business owners, perfectionism often presents itself as a tendency to take on everything or personally oversee all tasks – a guaranteed way to overload the working day, for only incrementally better results.

Often, someone else getting things 80 or 90 per cent right is better than you wasting your energy getting to 100 per cent.

Hands-off management

Another way to prevent overload is to make yourself less available.

It may sound counter-intuitive, yet easy access often leads to lazy questions from people who already know the answers but expect you to tell them.

Likewise, when you’re not at work, unplug yourself from the system.

Have allocated periods where you will turn your phone off and don’t check emails. Contrary to what you might think, the world won’t end if you disappear for a while!

Similarly, ask yourself when you took your last holiday – or even a sabbatical.

If the thought of taking three months away from your business terrifies you, don’t be so quick to dismiss it.

I know of business owners who have taken six months off and returned to find the business still standing and in perfectly good working order.

If you were hit by a bus tomorrow and had to spend three months in hospital, your business would have to survive without you.

Why wait for such an unfortunate experience to enjoy the benefits? You should have a plan in place so your business can keep working if you can’t.

Healthy and wise

Next, ensure you carve out time for yourself and use it wisely – movement can be a great de-stressor, yet we’re often guilty of neglecting it.

The average person sits for approximately 10 hours per day, with special vulnerability existing for those who have desk jobs.

A short walk can do wonders for your mood and stress levels. Meditation has also been shown to improve mental health and vitality.

Alongside exercise, business owners also tend to neglect their hobbies and other interests – particularly during busy periods.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work? When did you last do it?

Now may be a good time to renew your membership in clubs and groups you have been neglecting.

Spending time with your nearest and dearest is another effective way to improve your health and peace of mind.

Human beings are social animals – so, do you arrange regular catchups with friends and family? If not, why not?

The answer is generally that we are too busy with work.

But, as demonstrated above, there are often work tasks that aren’t necessary for the business owner to do personally – or aren’t necessary at all.

Sharpen your axe, trim the fat, and refocus your energy on what really matters.


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David Brown

Contributor • Retail Edge Consultants

David Brown is co-founder and business mentor with Retail Edge Consultants. Learn more: retailedgeconsultants.com


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