Fewer

As we are at 2019’s half way mark, I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect on the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in the year so far. And, I think the word that encapsulates these lessons is “fewer.”

Fewer has been top of mind thanks to a high intensity period at work in the past three months. It has made its way to this blog through various posts on focus and, in many cases, literally through shorter-than-usual posts.

While some part of this shift has been circumstantial (high volume of things that needed to be done + two young kids at home), a large part of it was a subconscious desire to welcome “fewer.” It is what I both needed to learn and was unable to articulate.

So, as I look ahead at the second half of the year, I hope to continue down the path of fewer.

For starters…

…do fewer things so they can be done better.

…say fewer things so they can be communicated better.

…read fewer things so they can be absorbed better.

…eat fewer things so they can be digested better.

Fewer doesn’t automatically translate to better. But, given we’re dealing with more noise and excess than any other time in human history, it definitely feels like a good place to start.

What if it were easier?

There’s no dearth of interesting “what if it were easier” questions. For example –

  • What if getting our projects resourced was easier?
  • What if good health/relationships were easier to maintain?
  • What if our teams/executives easily understood our thought process and the value we were adding?
  • What if our immigration problems just vanished? :-)

While occasionally interesting as thought experiments, the fallacy here is an implicit assumption that easier is better. If you have been so fortunate as to get things after having worked hard or after many failed attempts, you know that that isn’t the case.

So, when we face our challenges, it might just be worth replacing the “what if it were easier question” with “what would it take for me to be better?”

Easier isn’t better. Better is better.

The work longer impulse

“This is an exciting new project. You will have to work longer, but it will be worth it.”

In our consciousness, new projects and working longer generally go together. Our ability to put in the hours for projects that matter is how we prove our mettle as dedicated workers after all.

Except, working longer is just one approach.

Instead of simply adding the number of work hours to the day, we could also do the following – cut existing low priority projects, streamline how we do our existing work, or build better processes to integrate the new project easily into our workflow.

Yes, we could work longer. But, we could also use the opportunity to work better.

More and better

I was trying to get more push ups in at the gym the other day. In isolation, that’s not a bad idea. However, there was plenty of room for me to do fewer, much better.

I realized soon enough that this behavior was due to an incentive I had in place. I used to give myself a small check mark at the end of the week if I counted 100 push ups as a proxy for time spent at the gym. However, it wasn’t relevant anymore. So, I took the check mark row off. But it got me thinking about incentives.

First, whenever you see a person or an organization pushing for more/faster instead of better, take a good look at the incentives. People compensated for the short term will push for short term wins instead of longer term value. And, this compensation need not be in terms of pay. It could also just be about more praise in the short term or “culture currency.”

Second, we overestimate the amount of time “more” is useful. This is likely because our emotional system, the amygdala, was trained in thousands of years of scarcity. The last hundred years have created more abundance than our amygdala can ever imagine. So, yes, every once a while, we do need more in our lives.

But, as a general rule, better is always better.

When will the excuses stop?

My mom pointed out this morning that a couple of my blog posts last week had a bunch of grammatical errors. My initial reaction during that split second was to get defensive and offer an excuse. It had touched an insecurity around my ability to write. And, I reasoned to myself, it had after all been a brutal last couple of weeks and, on some days, just hitting publish on a post felt like a victory.

That’s when a question crossed my mind –  when will the excuses stop?

Sure, the next couple of weeks may not be brutal. But, what about the next tough period? Will I make excuses then, too? ‘

The English football team offers a shining example of this problem. After every international tournament failure, the media points to one excuse after another. And, it typically ends with everyone blaming the English Premier League for not having enough homegrown players.

If the problem was that, how do you explain Costa Rica knocking out big wigs like Italy and England en-route to the quarter finals? How you explain a team like Algeria narrowly losing to the Germans in the Round of 16? Both these teams didn’t make it there by accident. They were simply teams that were good at playing together as a team. They got good while the others didn’t.

England’s failure was not a surprise to me. Germany’s success was not a surprise either (the extent of the thrashing they doled out to Brazil definitely was). The former makes a habit of making excuses while the latter simply focuses on clinical execution by a collection of excellent football players.

It is impossible to get better by making excuses. I ended up engaging my mom to help fix the grammatical errors. While I am glad I did, I also know that I was awfully close to making an excuse.

We always have a choice – to make an excuse or simply get better. And, I find it heartening that it is entirely my choice.