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When Lorri Mealey took over her first restaurant in 1999, it was suffering from a common affliction: The too-big menu. You know the kind — pages upon pages of every type of cuisine under the sun. While the idea of ordering a baked potato with a side of lo mein might seem appealing at first, the problem was that none of the cooks could make the same dish the same way.
“This lack of consistency was one of the biggest problems — customers were wary of ordering anything other than a burger and fries because there was a 50/50 chance the food wouldn’t taste the same as the last time they had ordered it,” she wrote.
Mealey ended up paring the menu down, emphasizing signature dishes that customers could only get at her restaurant. As a result, business soared.
The problem of trying to do too many things at once is familiar to many entrepreneurs. For the ambitious among us, doing fewer smacks of laziness, and who wants that?
But there’s a reason the Pareto principle — also known as the 80/20 rule — is so well known. The basic idea is that for many things, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. By focusing only on the essentials, you’ll find you’re able to achieve more and simplify your life. Here’s how to get started.
Get clear on your “why”
As the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how.’ Margie Warrell, author of Stop Playing Safe, says that finding your life’s work means examining the intersection of four categories: Your natural abilities, your skills and expertise, your passions, and your values.
There’s a common misconception that passion is the only thing that matters when finding your “why.” And it is often overemphasized in startup media, and creates the idea that it alone will lead to success. But Warrell posits that while passion is important, it’s just 25 percent of the pie. While it’s possible to have passion without natural talent and vice versa, “experience has shown me that we rarely aspire toward ambitions we have no natural talent to achieve,” Warrell says.
I created my company, JotForm, not because I was specifically passionate about building online forms, but because I recognized a need in my industry, and had the skills and experience to help fill it. I find enormous satisfaction in applying my natural talents to help people save time. For me, my passion for my work is inextricable from my abilities, skills, and values.
As Warrell puts it, we often undervalue the strengths, skills and the expertise we naturally acquire over time. “If you reframe the concept of adding value through the lens of solving problems, you can ask yourself what you’re well placed and equipped to help solve in your workplace, career, organisation or industry. You can also ask yourself what problems you really enjoy solving, and what problems you feel passionate about trying to solve.”
Have a story
No matter what business you’re in, you want to be able to explain your story to stakeholders in the simplest terms possible. Doing less will help streamline the story you’re telling, and ensure that it sticks in people’s minds.
Evan Kirkpatrick, CEO of Wendell Charles Financial, meets hundreds of entrepreneurs each year. But after they’ve parted ways, “I immediately turn to the person next to me to ask ‘What exactly do they do again?’ It sounds intriguing in the moment as I’m caught up in their excitement, but ultimately if no one can explain it, they will face an enormous challenge without investors and connections,” he says.
Having a story isn’t just helpful for clients and investors — it’s helpful for employees, too.
“Just think back to fairy tales and fables, the reason we remember tales like the Three Little Pigs is because the story was simple and had a clear point,” Chris Myers, co-founder and CEO of BodeTree, writes in Forbes. “The same tactic can be used inside of organizations.”
“Not every communication has to be a full length story, but putting your company’s mission, strategy and operational directives into a coherent narrative helps both you, your team and your customers better comprehend and remember the key points.”
Successful companies practice what Kirkpatrick calls “refined simplicity;” the place where brilliant ideas and ease of use meet.
“Refined simplicity does not mean that you can’t build out additional product lines eventually,” he notes. “It reassures people that you are dependable, consistent, and worth betting on because you know exactly what you’re focused on. For your sake, and ours, make it easy to share what you do.”
Eliminate what you don’t need
Just as focusing on an unwieldy menu helped propel Lorri Mealey’s restaurant to success, eliminating all but the most essential services will help your business. Greg McKeown, who wrote the New York Times bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, refers to this practice as conducting a “life audit.”
“In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. “Most of these efforts didn’t come with an expiration date. Once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. Figure out which ideas from the past are important and pursue those. Throw out the rest.”
Similarly, McKeown also recommends eliminating any old activities before adding new ones, which ensures you’re not piling on something that’s less valuable than what you’re already doing.
Resist the urge to pile on
One of the reasons it’s hard to adopt a “do less” mindset is that our society conflates “more” with “better.” In 2011, a study conducted by Morten T. Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley and co-author of Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, found that 24% of people blamed their inability to focus on bosses who asked for too many things.
“In our data, people who focused on a narrow scope of work, and said no to maintain that strategy, outperformed others who didn’t,” Hansen writes in the Wall Street Journal. “They placed an impressive 25 percentage points higher in the performance ranking—the difference between being a middling and an excellent performer.”
It’s going to take time to rethink the conventional wisdom that long hours automatically equal success. On the contrary, the best performers are the ones who can judge what work to take on and what to decline, what work creates value, and how to simplify processes using innovative thinking.
As Hansen puts it: “We should no longer take it as an automatic compliment to hear that we’re ‘hard working.’ Hard work isn’t always the best work. The key is to work smarter.”