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How becoming an essentialist made me a better CEO

7th Dec 2016
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Being a Type A personality has its advantages. You’re competitive by nature, driven to succeed and have a confident disposition. As an ambitious entrepreneur and business owner, these are all character traits worth having.

Unfortunately, this ‘overachiever’ approach to life almost did me in.  I was always striving for perfection. Anything less than exactly right just wouldn’t do. Predictably, this led to longer and longer working hours with little to no breaks in-between. Downtime became something other people indulged in.

Not being able to switch off comes with consequences. At first I was just tired (obviously), but before long the symptoms of my workaholic lifestyle escalated to mood swings and exhaustion. I walked around in a fog of complete overwhelm.  

The long days, working every weekend and most holidays finally caught up with me. I was the kind of tired that wouldn’t be fixed by sleeping more. Even worse, I was miserable and resentful and felt like a slave to the business I’d spent so long building.

It was time for a change.

I emptied my diary for the following weekend and began forming a plan to get my life back. The first thing I did was go onto Amazon and buy as many books about work life balance as I could find. Next I put an out of office on my email, switched my phone to silent and started reading.

The book that changed everything

I’m a voracious reader, so I consumed a lot over the course of the weekend. Some books weren’t worth the virtual ink they’d been written with, while others were really helpful. There was only one book, however, that caused the proverbial lightbulb to switch on.

From its opening pages, I knew it was going to be a game changer. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown gave me a whole new way of approaching not just work, but life as a whole.

Instead of teaching you time management hacks to get more done in less time, the book shows you how to focus only on getting the right things done. With Greg’s help, you learn to figure out what’s essential and then remove everything that isn’t.

I decided to go through my to-do list for the previous month and see what I could learn from it. I started by grouping my various tasks into categories:

  • Could be delegated
  • Stress-inducing
  • Time-consuming
  • Added value

I was equal parts mortified and excited by what I found. Mortified because it showed me how much of my time could have been better spent elsewhere, and excited because now that I knew where I was going wrong I could get busy fixing it.

Speaking engagements

I realised that I was accepting all speaking engagements that came my way, without really considering if they were worth the time and effort. I find them stressful and they take a lot of time to properly prepare for, which would be fine if they were adding value to the business. They weren’t though, and therein lies the rub.

I made a decision to decline all speaking engagements for the next 18 months.

Business lunches

I was offering a blanket ‘yes’ to every invite that was came my way, despite the fact that I’m not a fan of business lunches. Aside from being an unnecessary expense, they’re also time-consuming. Having a phone call or meeting is a far more productive route to take.

I no longer accept business lunch invites. Nowadays, meals out are reserved for friends and family and ‘shop talk’ is checked at the door.

Helping out

I discovered how often I was allowing myself to be guilt-tripped into helping out with various things, such as reading over a friend’s business plan, judging awards or offering career advice to a school leaver. It’s great being able to help, but I was taking it too far and saying yes to everything. The extra hours piled up accordingly.

I’ve put better boundaries in place and learnt to say no gracefully.

Meetings

Meetings are a huge time-suck. I realised that I was spending more time in meetings than I was in my office. This left me with almost no time for actual work. As a result, my evenings and weekends were spent playing catch-up. Hence the long days and hi-jacked holidays.

I began blocking out my diary for a couple of hours every morning and used the time purely on work. I now have fewer meetings and way more productive days.

Firing clients

We had two high-maintenance clients on our books who were causing more stress than their accounts were worth. Managing them and supporting the account team was incredibly draining.

I decided to fire both clients. This left me free to go after better prospects and lifted a weight off my shoulders.

The 'a ha' moment

I came to the realisation that I was letting the business rule my life. When we lost a client or a key team member left, I took it as a personal affront. When things were going well I’d still have an underlying fear that things would go wrong. This negativity was all-consuming, not to mention extremely debilitating.

Occasionally I still feel like that - but now I’m equipped with the tools to help me cope whenever those old negative feelings arise.

Keeping your head in a busy world

Meditation: I make a point of meditating every day. Taking the time to do this first thing in the morning sets the tone for the day ahead. Sitting quietly and following your breath for 5-10 minutes all but guarantees a calm and productive day.

Gratitude: It’s been scientifically proven that being grateful makes you happier. I listed everything the business has done for me and saved it in Evernote so I can refer to it whenever I feel like I’m losing sight of what’s important.

The worst case scenario game: One way I’ve learnt to put things in perspective is to think of the worst thing that could happen to the business (it goes under, for example) and then remind myself of everything I’ll still have, such as my health, family, friends and so on.

Becoming an essentialist has taught me when (and how) to say no and it’s shown me the value of setting boundaries. Perhaps more importantly, it’s helped me to identify the value-adding tasks and delegate or eliminate the rest. I’m a far better CEO a much happier person in general.

Regardless of what we’d like to think we’re capable of, doing everything isn’t humanly possible. And if you think about it, why would we want to? I much prefer Greg McKeown’s approach to ‘do less, but better’. I suspect my staff do too.

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