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Do only what matters to succeed

“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” - Greg Mckeown No one intentionally spends resources on things that don’t matter. And yet, this is indeed what most people and companies end up doing. It’s accidental, even inevitable. Without intention that is.
“Doing only what matters” comes in many names. Essentialism, the 80/20 rule, work smarter not harder, etc. Each concept differs in details but is the same at its core: focus on the things that have a real impact, and forget everything else. 
In an office setting, this has traditionally been pretty hard to do. Oftentimes, “doing what matters” doesn’t align with “what the boss wants to see”. Perhaps an employee wants to research a new tactic on YouTube. When the boss walks by, you switch to a spreadsheet to look more professional. Even worse, when teams shift their whole workflow to focus on pleasing the boss instead of the final outcome. This is what we want to avoid.
Companies that focus on the essential: 
  • Scale faster 
  • Make more money 
  • Have better employee happiness and retention 
  • Raise more money 
  • Have a higher likelihood of success.

How do we know what really matters?

If you’ve done them correctly, your goals should tell you. Every company should have 3 categories of goals that helps them focus on what really matters:
1. The Company Mission 2. Company Goals 3. Personal goals
If set properly, these goals should flow from the bottom up. Your personal goals should have a direct impact on the company goals, and the company goals should have a direct impact on the Company Mission. This way, every action done at the company should impact the top goal. 
Typically, problems arise when these don’t align. For example, if a company is on a mission to make healthy food more accessible to low-income neighborhoods, and the marketer has a flat revenue goal, they will likely do anything they can to hit that revenue number. That might mean selling to people outside of the niche, defeating the whole point of the mission.
You want to align goals so that if the personal goals succeed, the company goals and mission succeed as well. Once you accomplish this, figuring out what really matters is as simple as asking, “will this thing contribute to the company’s mission?” 

What to do if your goals don’t align 

Goals shouldn’t be hard to set. In fact, they should almost be obvious (this is the reason many people forget to formally set them). Having said that, it does get harder to set appropriate goals as you go from company to individual. The company mission is set and doesn’t change. Annual company goals are also obvious, and usually revenue/growth related. 
People often fail when translating these to personal goals. The easiest way to notice a disconnect is when your personal goals have little impact on the company goals. But you don’t need to start from scratch, just take a step back. Ask, “how can I make the greatest contribution to the company mission?” This should give you an obvious goal to focus on.
Repeat this exercise with everyone on the team, and soon everything your team does will contribute to a meaningful outcome.

How do you prioritize what matters? 

  1. Focus on outputs vs. inputs – this sacred mantra of remote work applies just as well to prioritization. Prioritize what will have a positive output, not what looks good or feels right. 
  2. Say no to what doesn’t matter – half the benefit in finding out what matters is having the power to ignore what doesn’t.  
  3. “Work smarter not harder” – automate things. Improve systems and processes so the effects and benefits scale. 
  4. Eliminate clutter and distractions - putting off unpleasant but needed tasks creates mental disorganization. 
  5. Think long term - focusing on short term gains can harm your long-term goal. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Focusing on long term can be scary. 
  6. Think things through - stopping for just a moment before starting a project can save months of work down the road. 

Where to apply prioritization? 

Everywhere! Obviously. But more specifically, here are some areas to think about. 
🎁 Products – we add only what’s essential (features, copy, etc.) and eliminate the rest to keep things simple. 🗣 Communications – keep messages short and to the point without buzzwords. 💡 Ideas – we can’t do everything, so let’s only do the great ideas. 🛠 Systems – don’t just prioritize what you are working on, prioritize how you are working on it. ❤️ Personal Life – if you are having a personal emergency, the most impactful thing you can do might be to step away from work.

Doing only what matters can be uncomfortable

At least at first. Like anything, it’s a practice that gets easier over time. If you have developed a habit of saying yes to everything, you’ve conditioned those around you to expect this from you. So, when you say no for the first few times, it will be uncomfortable. You’ll feel the urge to switch to a “yes”. When you don’t, the other party will wonder why. They may get irritated, or even offended. An easy way to mitigate this is to be transparent. Say you are working on other priorities that need your focus. This is something people understand. After the first couple of times, people will start to question their own requests before sending them. They’ll do some of the prioritization for you. 
It’s not just the process of prioritizing that can be uncomfortable. Sometimes the actual thing you should be doing to have the most impact is non-obvious or awkward. Let’s say you’ve gone a few nights without good sleep. In that moment, the best thing you can do is get some sleep. This is the preferred outcome to achieve the best results. 
Similarly, if you are frustrated at work, it is better to cancel a meeting and take a walk than to try and have that meeting when you are in a negative mood. The other party may not know the context, but if they did they would thank you. After all, do you want to have a call with a coworker who is in a terrible mood? 

Request only what is essential 

Prioritization is a two-way street. While a key part is strictly prioritizing incoming requests, we can also help others with their prioritization by not requesting non-essential things. If your design team is preparing for an impending product launch, don’t request a new landing page for a marketing experiment. 
It’s also important to support and understand others who are prioritizing. If you make a request and they start asking questions, the other party is probably just trying to figure out for themselves if a request is essential. 
Doing both of these things helps: 
  • Avoid unneeded and wasted work 
  • Improve work relationships 
  • Make work more fun 
  • Ensure everyone hits their goals.

Everyone needs to prioritize

The chance that your life doesn’t need any prioritization is basically zero. Everyone does tasks that aren’t needed. It’s fine if the non-essential things are enjoyable (although one could argue that the enjoyable things are in fact essential), but we all have tasks in our lives that we both dread and could recognize as not being really needed. 
Prioritization could be what makes or breaks your own impact, or the companies success. If a CEO can’t decide what is essential, the company won’t be able to. No one is exempt from the need to prioritize, especially not leaders. 
The truth is that we all could save ourselves hours, days, weeks and months of work by taking a moment to step back and consider if what we are doing really matters. 
If you're currently working on planning and prioritization for your team or your own projects for next year, we're writing an article outlining our processes at SafetyWing that help us with that so stay tuned!

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.