To attain knowledge, add things every day.
To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. ~ Lao Tzu
If you are like my friends, colleagues and clients; you aspire for self-improvement but struggle to balance the demands of your life, work, and personal aspirations.
There are two ways to address such a challenge
Muster courage and willpower to propel yourself through life at all costs. This might work in the short term if you are super lucky, brilliant and energetic; but if you’ve followed me for long enough, you realize just how self-defeating that approach is. It’s not sustainable, nor does it guarantee progress!
Follow a more organic and effortless path to progress. While this can seem counter-intuitive, that less effort can yield suitable results (sometimes astonishing results), it is possible and more sustainable.
A valuable approach that can be helpful in the pursuit of effortless progress is the subject of today’s article.
Let’s explore this with a thought exercise
Take a moment and think about a career-related skill that you would like to improve.
Please don’t skip this step. Really think about something that you would like to improve upon that would be super-helpful in your work.
Got it? Great!
Next, think about ways in which you can improve on it. Take out a pen (or your phone) and jot down some ideas. Once you’ve taken these simple steps, continue reading. If you don’t, the rest of my email won’t make much sense!
Here’s a nice photo to stare at in the meantime…
Have a list of ways to improve? Good.
Please look at your list.
Put a plus (+) sign next to the items that represent additive things. These are things that you need to DO in order to improve.
Next, put a “(-) sign net to subtractive things. These are things you are looking to ELIMINATE or more generally do less of, in your quest for improvement.
For example, if you are looking to improve your public speaking skill, you might have a list like:
Join Toastmasters (+)
Read 3 books by experts on the topic (+)
Volunteer to give a talk to my professional association (+)
Listen to a podcast on the topic (+)
Record myself presenting and watch it (+)
Slow down (-)
Simplify my talking points (-)
Be more present (less “up in my head”) when talking (-)
How many ADDITIVE items did you have?
Did you have any SUBTRACTIVE items?
If you are like most people, you have no shortage of things you can DO to improve yourself. If fact, you probably have a laundry list of things you could do. Such a list would even give the most hardened over-achiever a bad case of heartburn!
However, you probably have ZERO things (or at most just one) worth eliminating or doing less of.
Am I right?
This is a BIG problem.
We are not wired to improve things in simple and reductionist ways. This creates all sorts of tension, especially for high-performers. The modern human mind excels at creating new and improved ways to do stuff. It also loves to hoard. If one tactic is good, 37 tactics are better!
The problem isn’t that additive steps lack utility. They can be useful. The problem is that eliminating stuff and doing less has highly leveraged value in a society that is fixating on DOING MORE MORE MORE in it’s quest to improve.
Simplification creates space for a few useful steps to actually have an impact. Further, since it’s so infrequently done, it holds a much greater latent opportunity.
Perhaps most importantly, it requires far less time and energy (in the long term) that doing MORE MORE MORE.
Why don’t companies and teams do more of this?
Back when I was a team leader at Microsoft, I used to often perform the simple “stop/start/continue” exercise together with colleagues and teams. This exercise would first involve identifying the things (projects, processes, behaviors) that we would be best served to eliminate, and then proceed to explore those things worth adding to the mix (or continuing).
It was always a challenge to identify things worth STOPPING, to the point where it was tempting to skip this step, but when we lingered on it we would come up with a few things, and those things were often incredibly impactful.
The same goes for personal and career growth. Instead of creating a never-ending list of things to start doing, flip it around. Think about what you can let go of completely. This type of thinking might be hard at first, but what you arrive at may just be the best, and easiest, way to improve long term.
One reason why so many of my coaching clients are frustrated with their employers, even when are working at coveted big tech firms like Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple or Microsoft (I’ve coached many professionals at all of them)…is the level of process and bureaucracy they need to deal with just to get their work done.
Why does this happen, even at companies that are on the bleeding edge of product development?
One of the reasons is that well-meaning (and intelligent!) people at these companies are great at creating solutions, but these solutions almost always skip a crucial step, they forget to SUBTRACT AND SIMPLIFY.
Going beyond good-enough
With an insight into the value of simplicity, and that doing less isn’t just GOOD ENOUGH, it can often be MUCH BETTER, you can be on the lookout for ways to clarify, simplify and reduce activity within yourself (for your personal career development) and your teams.
The result just might be transformative.
If you are interested in exploring this idea further, two books I’ve enjoyed on this topic are:
The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch. This is a classic book that will expand your understanding of the Pareto Principle (80-20 rule) and how it can apply to any aspect of your life. I’ve read this book at least three times, and each time come away with a fresh and helpful insight on the value of doing less.
Subtract by Leidy Klotz. I read this book recently, and it speaks to the biological and psychological tendencies that motivate humans to reactively crave for MORE even when LESS is far more effective a choice.