Much of What You’re Going to Do or Say Today is Not Essential

If you’re a modern knowledge worker, odds are you’re going to go to work, read some emails, reply to some emails, attend some meetings, grab a coffee, have lunch, attend another meeting or two, catch up on emails, and finally head home. You’ll be busy from the moment you get to work until the moment you go home.

When you do find a nook of time, you’ll likely be bombarded with beeping, dings, calls, and other people who only need a sliver of our time. After all, they too have something urgent to do. They too, have a deadline. After a long day, you’ll come home mentally and physically drained. Eventually, you’ll reach a tipping point and say enough is enough.

The very next day, you’ll head into the office vowing to change things. You’ll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done the work to have an informed opinion on the matter, it matters that you go and make some token contribution to the meeting. The plan to work better flies out the window; any hope of sanity along with it.

If we can’t work smarter, we can work harder. So we end up redoubling our efforts, cutting out lunch and shortening meetings so we can fit more of them in.

Our response to finding ourselves stuck in the muck is to put our foot on the accelerator. Part of the problem is that attending meetings has become some sort of corporate-machoism badge.

“Hey, you want to grab a coffee to talk about that really cool project I’m working on? I’d love to pick your brain?”

“Sounds great. How’s three Wednesdays from now sound? … Yea, I know, I’m so busy.“

Sure we do more busywork, but we’re doing less real work. Real work happens when you come in early, stay late, or too often, both. That’s how we find quiet, uninterrupted time.

The paradox is that in an effort to do more, we end up doing less. When you find yourself in a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging. By failing to think about how we’re working, we only end up burning ourselves out.

There is another way to improve performance but it’s a bit unconventional: Eliminate the bullshit.

Stop doing the busy work and start spending your time adding value to yourself, your clients, your co-workers, and your friends.

Focus on what’s important and eliminate the rest.

Before doing anything, ask yourself, “is this necessary?” And if it’s not necessary, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

The idea comes from eminent stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

In Meditations, he writes:

[M]ost of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary.

Ok, that makes sense. So why don’t more people do this?

That’s a good question.

While there are many reasons, this one probably carries a lot of weight.

“Worldly wisdom,” writes John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

No one wants to be unconventional. No one wants to be different.

More people should follow the advice of Aurelius — It’s not that difficult, it’s common sense. It just looks difficult because it’s unconventional.