It’s Important That You Read This Blog Post
Early in my career I discovered something very interesting about the way Corporate America speaks. Everything is urgent and important, and we are all very important people with very important jobs. Maybe an example would illustrate this concept better.
When an employee is on vacation they often set an “out of office” message which usually includes a phrase along the lines of “Since I won’t be checking email, if your matter is urgent please do x.” Sometimes it tells coworkers to contact an alternate person, sometimes it tells others to call the person on their cell phone (yes, even though they’re on vacation). However, there’s an open secret that lies beneath that phrase — nobody really expects to be contacted, no matter how “urgent” the issue might be.
How often is there really something work-related that’s so urgent that you have to be interrupted when you’re on vacation? You might be thinking “but there’s always the possibility of something being urgent and I’ll need to get to it right away! My work is very important, see, and a lot of important people need to contact me and tell me to do things.” Perhaps some people believe that they’re really that important, but more often than not I think people are merely begging for important things to do to bolster their self-image or their position at work. By making even trivial emails seem urgent, they trick themselves into believing that they are not just a wage slave. Now don’t get me wrong! Meaningful work is important. Family is important. Learning new skills and being happy and feeling good about your work is important. But an email at 5:01pm from your boss asking you to do something by the end of the day — not important. The company will go on without you performing that task right away. Likely, the company will go on without you doing that task at all.
When we create a false sense of urgency about everything, it’s easy to lose sight of the truly significant things we should be thinking about. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown argues that we should simply stop doing the things that don’t matter. If you spend your time and energy exclusively on the important things, you’ll be happier and more fulfilled. You might even realize that your work really isn’t so important and it’s time to move on to better things. And that’s what really scares people.
When I first learned about Essentialism, I thought back to the now iconic book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. In 2001, he described a similar idea — that companies should “fully fund” projects of importance and disregard everything else. During a typical corporate budgeting meeting, management says “We have to do these six things; how much money should we allocate to each project?” But that mentality is wrong, argues Collins. Instead you should identify essential priorities and allocate all the resources necessary to fulfill them. Why give a project 50% of what it needs when it’s a top priority? Why fund another project at all when you’re not fully committed to it? This takes discipline and thought, but making the right calls always do.
This concept got me thinking that in our personal lives we should be fully funding the important things and saying no to everything else. If you have two competing deadlines at work, pick one. If you have two invitations to parties on the same date, don’t try to stop by both and then leave abruptly. Fully commit to one. But most importantly, stick with your choices. Thousands of people work more than they need to because they haven’t mastered this simple concept. We all spend money on things we regret, or don’t need. We all spend an extra hour at the office to get that promotion and the bigger house, while in the process becoming a slave to the new salary instead of using our current salary more effectively. We all waste our time interacting with things that are unimportant instead of people who are.
But an amazing thing happens when we embrace essentialism. When we prioritize family, we might find a way to discipline ourselves to working 40 hour weeks (or less!). When we prioritize pride in our work, we might focus on providing high quality services to thankful, loyal clients instead of chasing fleeting one-time deals. When we prioritize our own time, we stop letting other people steal it away with small, unnecessary requests.
In fact, focusing on what’s important lets us take back our time in two ways. First, we take back moments of our day to spend in more productive ways. Second, by focusing on what is important in the long term, we can cut out waste from our lives, allowing us to buy back more time later. If that doesn’t make sense, think of it this way: Why do you work? When you work you are giving up your time to someone else. And in return you get money. If you live by focusing on what’s important, then you can make that money give you a phenomenal return on your investment by giving you back more time than you spent to get it.
The wonderful thing about achieving financial independence early is that instead of trading time (your most precious resource) for money and then useless consumer goods, you are instead trading your time for much more time later! If by working for ten years you can retire for 50 (which is what we help our clients achieve at Monte Largo), I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. But it’s not possible without a sense of what’s truly important in life. If you haven’t discovered what’s most important to you yet, that’s OK. Here’s a place to start: next time you go on vacation, just let your boss know how long you’ll be gone and leave the “out of office” messages out of it.
Nathan is the CEO of Monte Largo Financial Advisors LLC.