Not long after the 2008 financial crisis, I spoke to a group of freshly promoted U.S. Coast Guard admirals about the leadership challenges they’d be facing in their new roles. I asked them a question I pose to many of the leaders I work with: “How many of you are working someplace where you’re expected to do more with less?” Especially around those years, the answer was typically a resounding majority.
But that day was different. “The situation we’re facing isn’t how to do more with less,” one admiral explained. “It’s how to do less with less.”
The Coast Guard, he told me, had been strained for resources even before the financial crisis hit. Now, officers were being asked to make tough choices about how to provide crucial services. “We can’t be everywhere,” he conceded.
That’s true not just for the Coast Guard but for leaders at just about every organization today. And amid the pressure to think ahead, seize new opportunities, and innovate continuously, it’s one that’s easy to lose sight of, leading to missed goals, burnout, and worse. But there may still be a way to do less with less–to not be everywhere–and still succeed.
These days, when I ask a room full of leaders, “How many of you are in the same job today that you were in a year ago even though its scope widened?” a good 80% of the hands go up. That’s just one indicator that most professionals are still having to work with fewer resources than they may have once had.
It hardly takes an expert to understand the repercussions. But those at the American Psychological Association have nonetheless uncovered a stark picture of them. In the group’s 2013 Stress Study, 33% of Americans reported feeling extreme stress, and 48% said their stress had increased in the past five years–right around when the recession took hold.
When people were asked why their stress had gone up, the number one cause was work; financial concerns were number two. Those twinned factors were cited by 76% of respondents. When it comes to managing stress, only 29% of people think they do a good job of it, and 83% believe it affects their health.
If that work-related stress is affecting our well-being, it also threatens to drag down our performance. And in that sense, the popular focus on productivity may be at least a little misplaced. Instead of covering the same distance on an emptier tank of gas, it’s time learn how to take shorter trips that still get us where we need to go.
I interviewed dozens of highly successful people for my book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, from the CEO of Hilton Worldwide to best-selling author and Wharton School professor Adam Grant. Here are three of those leaders’ strategies for performing well with fewer resources.
No, it isn’t just about prioritizing. That’s when you choose which among your list of things are more important. This is about identifying and eliminating those that are unimportant–and that’s harder than you might think. As your resources diminish, you need to rethink what you value. And in the course of that assessment, some of the things that were once valuable, even minimally so, may end up losing their value entirely. In fact, they probably should.
Consider the meetings you go to on a regular basis, the conference calls you dial into, the reports you write or read. When was the last time you questioned the assumptions or needs underlying any of them? Chances are you’re doing things on a regular basis that aren’t really even essential.
How many hours a week does that unnecessary work add up to? Even if it’s only three or four hours parceled out across five workdays, think what difference it could make in your life and performance to have an extra four hours every week!
Succeeding when you have less requires continuously rethinking what success itself looks like. But that isn’t about lowering the bar in order to hit a lesser goal; it’s refocusing the lens so you can better see where it is.
Many of the limits and boundaries we set for ourselves in the name of productivity, discipline, frugality–what have you–are more or less arbitrary, even though they make us feel more productive, disciplined, or frugal. Don’t just set limits; consider what purposes they serve. And sometimes, as your resources shift or diminish, old boundaries will no longer serve the same needs.
Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta sets a boundary around when he stops working in order to spend time with his family. His goal is to make sure he has dinner with his kids at least twice a week. As he explained to me, “I could fill every single night I’m in town with business dinners and other commitments, but I consciously don’t do that…There is no end to the requests that come in…if you don’t have guardrails that you use, it will get away from you.”
The purpose of Nassetta’s rule hasn’t changed–getting in a certain amount of family time–but as the demands on his attention increase and the hours in the day don’t, policing that boundary gets harder. But since its function is clear, he can cut out the other, less meaningful activities that threaten it.
One of the quickest ways to end up with more on your plate than you can possibly handle is to say yes to every request. That much is clear. Less obvious is the fact that there’s a wide span of gray area between yes and no that few of us know how to utilize. For instance, there’s “Yes, if,” “Yes, but later,” and “No, but what about this instead?” Sometimes, of course, it’s just “No.”
When Adam Grant published his book Give and Take in 2013, The New York Times Magazine ran a long feature on him, implying that Grant spent most of his days “giving”–responding to requests for advice, meetings, connections, expertise, and so on.
I interviewed him a short while afterward to ask how he keeps it all going. While he appreciated the Times article, Grant told me that it had created the impression “that I never say no. I say no probably dozens of times per day, and that has intensified since the book launch.” It’s okay to say yes more purposefully and conditionally–especially as the requests pile up.
As that Coast Guard admiral pointed out, you can’t be everywhere. Getting comfortable with that without sacrificing the results you deliver starts with not trying to be.