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Simplification: The entrepreneur’s secret to success

Jan 30, 2016 | Business Success and Challenges

Note: This article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East, and can be viewed on the site here.

I don’t do complex. This goes for every aspect of my life – I don’t like clutter, I don’t like having fifty irons in the fire at once, I don’t like a to-do list that never gets any smaller, and I especially don’t like running from one meeting to the next without being able to catch my thoughts. In short, I like to keep things simple – and so should you.

Why? Well if you ask me, trying to do too many things at once leads to chaos. Order and planning and a good level of control over the workflow and how it gets executed, on the other hand, breed productive output, growth and success. And who among us can truly multitask anyway? Let me answer that with reference to research by the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, which found that only 2.5% of us can do so without a dip in performance in either task. That leaves a whopping 97.5% of us who are dropping the ball when we attempt to take on too much.

Further research in the Stanford Report highlighted a similar trend, finding that workers who regularly juggle several streams of electronic information at once do not pay attention or switch from one task to another as competently as those who tend to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is a myth: Only 2.5% of us can do so without a dip in performance in either task.

For the perfect example of somebody who liked to keep things simple, look no further than Steve Jobs. Jobs truly believed that simplicity was the key to his and Apple’s success and was once quoted as saying that “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Let’s take a look at a few ways that you can simplify your working life, remembering the two key benefits of simplification: 1) it will make your life more enjoyable and pleasant in general; and 2) it is key to your business success because it allows you to focus on getting things done right, as opposed to just getting them done.

1. Keep an eye on your to do list

We humans love to make lists. Perhaps it’s our way of trying to tame an untamable world. And granted, in the age of mass communication there is simply too much info and too many tasks coming at us at once, and lists are a hugely important means of coping with these demands. They can give us a certain peace of mind and help us feel in control – even if we’re not.

From a psychological perspective, lists allow us to process information better – piece by piece – rather than all at once (the latter being how we tend to process information in our heads). Ultimately, our brains crave categorisation, and lists are a perfect way to put everything in its right place.

One thing our brains don’t like, however, is falling short of completing the tasks on our list. The stress from not completing an item is in fact for most of us greater than the stress of putting in the long hours. This is why we need to be realistic about the size of our to do lists, which is something almost 90% of us are failing at. To be exact, according to a study on work performance, 89% of people who make daily to do lists are regularly not completing all the tasks.

The trick to avoid this trap is, quite simply, to be honest about what you can and cannot do in a given time period, rather than approach list development with a misguided sense of ambition. While it takes just a few minutes to put together a to do list, that list can haunt you for the rest of the day if it is an unrealistic one in terms of workload.

89% of people who make daily to do lists are regularly not completing all the tasks.

A great way to manage this is to arrive at your list in stages. So the first stage is a brain dump of every task you want to perform; the next is to put these tasks in priority of importance; and the final stage is your actual list, which takes the items from the top of the priority lists and maps them out according to your given time period (whether it’s a day list or a week list etc.). When you have matched up the tasks to the amount of time you have, those items that did not make the list stay off the list.

2. Only promise what you can deliver

Believe it or not, this one is far easier said than done. How often have you found yourself saying something like “Sure, I’ll have that over to you this afternoon”, before the logical part of your brain has had the chance to step in and remind you of the million-and-one tasks you have to complete before you even get to this one? Sometimes promising something now which we don’t have to deal with until later seems like the easiest option, but it backfires just about every time.

Again it’s about being realistic. I am not sure I would go as far as to say “under-promise, over-deliver” but that is certainly far more preferable than the other way round. Besides, your clients – though it may not seem like it at times – would much rather you take on only what you can comfortably deliver, rather than miss deadlines or produce rushed work that is sub-par. Take on what you (or your team) have the resources for, and if anything cannot be done within the requested time period, you have to be honest about that. If that means losing a project, hey, better to lose this one and still stay in good standing with the client rather than disappoint and risk getting no more work in the future.

3. Harness the power of tools

Just as technology has arguably made our lives more complex, so too can it be used to simplify our workload. There are countless business tools and applications out there that can help to make task and time management a breeze – from traditional programs such as Excel, to more contemporary offerings like Wunderlist.

I know there will be a few raised eyebrows at my inclusion of Excel here, but for all you Excel diehards, you know exactly why I mentioned it. It can be a great way to stay in control of your workflow. For me, one of the best features of Excel is that it can host and manipulate so much data, allowing you to see the forest and trees all at once – perfect for getting an overview of what’s been done, what’s next to do and what’s coming up on the horizon.

For many, however, Excel will seem old hat, and that’s where applications like Wunderlist, to use just one example among many, come in. This app is a personal favourite of mine and is perfect for anyone who finds themselves drowning in to do lists, post-its and reminders on scraps of paper. Essentially, it is a task management platform that syncs across all devices, giving you timed reminders for tasks due as well as an at-a-glance overview of actions that you need to complete. There is also a simple star system which allows you to quickly prioritise tasks, and you can also automate any recurring actions. But the best part of all: if another member of your team picks up one or more your tasks, with the touch of a button it is off your to do list and on to theirs. Who doesn’t love passing on the buck?

4. Declutter your calendar by axing those meetings

Let me be really clear on this one – we are all going to too many meetings. Over in the United States, a staggering 11 million meetings are held every single day, and how many of them are truly necessary? According the National Bureau of Labor Statistics – who estimate that unnecessary and unproductive meetings cost US businesses approximately $37 billion each year – the answer is not very many.

Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves if the meeting is even necessary. Could the points be conveyed in a quick call or even an email? Believe me, most of the time the answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” If you are in any doubt, hold off booking that meeting room. Not only will it free up your time to focus on more pressing tasks, but it will also lead to your staff and colleagues thanking you.

Unnecessary and unproductive meetings cost U.S. businesses approximately $37 billion each year.

According to research by American recruitment site Salary.com, “too many meetings” is the number one cause of wasted time in US offices, while a separate study by the Center for Economics and Business Research found that the majority of office workers feel that at least half the time they spend in meetings is a waste of time.

5. Simplify the way you communicate

This is probably the trickiest one on the list. Communication is how things move along in business, and so cutting back on the time spent doing so may not seem like a particularly viable option. Of course I am not suggesting you simply stop picking up the phone or replying to email, but there are certainly things you can do to streamline the process – and in fact set hard and fast rules and limits here on when you are accessible.

Let’s take email: how many do you receive in an hour? Five? Ten? Maybe 15? Now while it may seem like you spend just a few minutes here and there rattling off replies, in reality these communications are derailing your day much more than you might think. There have been several studies into how much time these little distractions take up in the average day, most notably by the University of California, Irvine (UCI), who found that we take on average 25 minutes to get back on track following a distraction. A similar study by American research firm Basex estimated that interruptions like these cost the US economy $588 billion a year.

But how can we possibly get email under control? Well that’s where tools such as Slack come in. Slack pulls all of your email and social accounts together, allowing you to prioritise messages by importance. That way you’ll only be interrupted as and when it is absolutely necessary.

Here’s my summary of the email issue: we are a bit stuck right now. We have these incredible new comms channels on account of technology, and while they offer a ton of benefits, they are also creating an unrealistic workload. There is indeed no quick fix. You have to find your own way of organising yourself and taming this comms mess as best as you can until tools like Slack get further along and we are governed by better systems. They will come. I have no doubts. But email in particular is just a stopgap (although granted it has been here already way too long in its current form) until we find a better way to do it.

The art of keeping it simple

The bottom line to all of this is that keeping things simple is not just a time saving exercise; rather, it can have a real impact on the success of your business and your overall happiness levels. As I mentioned above, Steve Jobs saw simplicity as a state of mind rather than just a way to get things done. For him simplicity was about distilling ideas in order to focus solely on the task at hand – no distractions, no complexities. But he also recognised that the world needed and craved simpler solutions, and so he delivered them in the form of a handful of lovely products that we can’t stop using.

Another way to look at this is that through no fault of our own humans struggle greatly to keep things simple – we are simply programmed to over-engineer and over-complicate. At the same time, we crave simplicity, and for entrepreneurs in particular it plays a role in both business survival and business growth. Again to stress, it allows us to focus on the right areas and to then give the right attention to the tasks required to drive success. Haste makes waste, whereas striving for perfection – which is about putting the time into the right things like Steve Jobs did – is the only way you have a serious shot of building a product or service that everyone has to have.

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