Minimalism at Work: Finding Your Best Next Action
Warren Buffett is fond of saying, "You only have to do a very few things right in your life, so long as you don't do too many things wrong."
There’s a reason Buffett’s fond of saying it. This philosophy has led him to a life of financial wealth.
Just this past week, Buffett made headlines by talking about how this philosophy still plays out in his life. He shared that he and his business partner Charlie Munger yearn for “an elephant-sized acquisition.” He said, “Even at our ages of 88 and 95 — I'm the young one — that prospect is what causes my heart and Charlie's to beat faster."
According to Buffett, the reason he doesn't jump on an acquisition right now is that prices are too high. The timing isn’t right. So, in keeping with his view that it’s critical to do a very few things right, he’s waiting. Better to get one acquisition right than to make hundreds of failed attempts.
It’s a philosophy that can and should guide the lives of all knowledge workers. Be patient, thoughtful, and crystal clear about what matters most. Then act on those things and those things only.
It also just so happens that this philosophy has a name that’s in vogue perhaps now more than ever:
Whereas maximalism is about doing every action that could benefit you, minimalism is about knowing what actions matter most and then focusing exclusively on those actions.
Maximalism: Living out of fear that you'll miss out on potential benefits if you don't do every action that could possibly benefit you in any way.
Minimalism: Reflecting on what matters most and acting only on those things.
For her part, Kondo invites people to hold each item in their living space and ask whether that item sparks joy. Anything that doesn’t spark joy, according to Kondo, should be thanked and disposed of, leaving you surrounded only by what you enjoy most.
For his part, Newport encourages readers to “focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.” Newport’s desire is that by focusing on a small number of optimized activities, people will be able to say, “because of technology I’m a better human being than I ever was before.”
And James Clear seems to directly channel Buffett when he writes, “We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.”
At some level, we all know that there’s something valid about minimalism. We shouldn’t fill our days with second-rate objects and tasks — stuff that ultimately prevents us from getting our best work done.
And yet if we know there’s power in minimalism, why is it so difficult (speaking from observation and personal experience) to put the philosophy into practice?
There are many reasons. For one, minimalism can be boring. Think of all the time Buffett has spent in analysis mode, waiting for the right acquisition. He could have been making deals, buying companies, and shaking up the market. It’d be exciting! It would also be reckless.
Minimalism is also difficult to put into practice because our most important tasks are seldom the most urgent — and we’re constantly buried by the tyranny of the urgent. According to our State of Work report, 58% of knowledge workers say we’re so swamped with getting day-to-day work done that we don’t have time to think beyond our daily to-do list. How do we find time to sit around and reflect on what matters most when we're constantly slammed with new tasks?
Finally, minimalism requires a tremendous amount of effort. In the case of Kondo, participants put all their belongings in an enormous pile and sort through them one by one to locate the items that spark joy. For people who own thousands of things, the process can become a full-time job. In the case of Cal Newport, participants completely eliminate all (or nearly all) social media, entertainment, and news sites for 30 days and then only add back sites that truly improve their lives. That's not an easy thing to do in an age where diversions are a tap away.
Practicing minimalism isn't easy, but it's worth it.
So how do we practice minimalism when it comes to work management?
A section in Done Right by Alex Shootman is particularly helpful here. Throughout the book, Shootman explores the concept of the best next action — a concept that helps the reader systematically achieve milestones on their way to reaching their key initiatives and extraordinary goals.
To start the process, Shootman advocates breaking down extraordinary goals into key initiatives and key initiatives into milestones. At each stage, you should have a clear sense of who does what, when it will be done, and what “done” looks like.
Once you’ve figured all that out, it's time to pinpoint your best next action. Ask, “What’s the one thing we’re going to do within the next two weeks that will take us closer to a milestone?”
That's it. It's not about asking, "What is every possible action we could take to get closer to a milestone?" That question represents a maximalist worldview, a worldview that leads to second-rate results.
Instead, it's about the one thing.
By focusing on the one thing, your work management efforts proceed in tiny but meaningful steps the entire way toward your extraordinary goal.
James Clear puts it this way: “If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line.” He adds, “Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient.”
This compounding process is exactly why minimalism is an effective work management strategy. If you get your best next action right every time you'll eventually cross the threshold into monumental success. It works on the level of the individual, the team, the department, and the enterprise.
Go ahead and put it into practice. Here’s a digital worksheet from Done Right to help you enact this minimalist work management strategy at your enterprise. No form-fill required.
Header photo credit: Stefan Cosma