Everyone I know is overwhelmed.

Their to-do list, their inbox, their social feed, their text messaging app—all overflowing with the unanswered.

To cope, all of us have become content with a certain amount of ignored communications. We embrace task neglect to survive, so we officially are never done.  The “never done” status leaves us oppressed with a nagging sense that we’re irresponsible.

While endemic of most spheres of life, task neglect is an epidemic at work.

The mouths all around us call out for more, more, more: more production, more meetings, more hours.

How do we cut through the clutter and do less for more?

In this post we tackle this question on a macro level, revealing the one secret that is essential for doing less for more. (Consider the upside of  increasing accomplishments in your life through shortening your commitment list by checking out last week’s post). In a future post, we’ll unpack simple practices that adjust our weekly rhythm for maximum focus.

Beginning with the End in Mind

“Beginning with the end in mind” is life and work wisdom we owe to Stephen Covey and his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s dictum applies to small projects, significant initiatives, and even whole careers.  What if you used it for your entire life?  

If you knew what the ultimate goal was for your life, wouldn’t it be easier to say no to the nonessential?

  1. Ask this question, over and over until you have a clear answer: What do I want my kids to say about me at my funeral. (If kids are not part of the picture for you, then imagine people who matter to you speaking at your funeral.) (Question courtesy of Howard’s Gift by Eric. C. Sinoway)
  1. Ruthlessly ask yourself What three things do I want to accomplish before I die? (This question courtesy of Bobb Bhiel).
  1. Tap into the emotional energy to answer the above focus questions by doing the following exercise. Print out the 90-year life in weeks info graphic. Check off the weeks you’ve already lived.  Identify three things that must change to get to the end you have in mind.

Rabbits, Elephants, and Arks.

There’s an old saying about prioritization: If the Ark is sinking, Noah would have to throw 100’s of rabbits overboard to equal one elephant.

The point: the big things in our schedules have a proportionate influence on where our lives end up.

So when launching your quest for more focus and efficiency, start with the elephants— the activities and commitments that take most of your time and energy.

For most of us, work is the largest of our elephants, consuming more waking hours than any other single activity in a typical week, month, or year.  So taming the work-elephant is strategy #1 in doing less for more. How do you do that? Answer these three questions. (They come to us courtesy Bobb Bhiel, Executive Mentor, and Consultant).

  1. What are three decisions causing you the most stress? Ambiguity creates stress. Lack of resolution drives inefficiency. What facts do you need to land the plane on each one?  Get the facts, finish the decision.
  1. What’s on your mental to-do list that can be responsibly put off for 90 days, a year, indefinitely? Strategic procrastination is a winning tactic.
  1. What are three things you can do in the next 90 days to make a 50% improvement in the focus and effectiveness of your work? This question moves you to the solution side.

Less for More Requires Defining What Matters

To summarize, without a rigorous view of where your life is headed, it’s impossible to have a grid for saying no. And the key to thriving in this technology world in which we live, is to say no to the non-essential demands that are vying to overwhelm us.

RELATED: If You Want to Do Something, Try Doing Nothing

A Prayer

The following prayer is one I say over and over. After reflecting on the brevity of life, after facing both the up and downside of realitiy in our world, the poet writes the following words.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. ~Psalm 90:12

As a person of faith, I draw comfort from the promise that I am not alone in the quest to discern the “end” that I should have in mind for my life.  I also note that a life-long perspective is something to be taught, a life-skill to be learned. With information and options multiplying around us like never before, it is the skill needed to do less for more in our times.

This post is originally featured in Patheos. All rights reserved.