Too Much is Never Enough


Jamal Cassim explains how to cut through the productivity fog by getting clear on what you are NOT going to do.

It’s the stereotypical party question.

"And what do you do?"

While I’m sure there are non-boring ways to answer that question, in a way, it’s the opposite that matters.

Those of us are caught up in the endless productivity cycle (guilty) see opportunities to improve everywhere. Usually, that means quicker, better, faster, more effective; where an improvement in efficiency seems a worthwhile end in itself.

The Productivity Trap

But to turn to Stephen Covey, our productivity granddad, the most important skill is choosing to do the right things in the first place. Productivity is pointless if you ultimately find yourself ‘hacking your way through the wrong jungle’.

There’s good heritage in being ultra-selective. Austin Kleon references ‘Creative People Say No’ and Kleon’s own compendium of elegant declines is well worth a read.

Tim Ferris maintains a 'Not To-do list’ that limits how thin he spreads himself - for him, ‘If it’s not a “Hell Yeah” then the answer is no’.

The Peril of Yes

True, these thinkers agree that those early on their path need to say ‘yes’ a lot before they can say ‘no’, embracing the unexpected opportunities that grace their path.

But when I think back on my own experience, there is a split between the necessary failures - the rookie errors that taught me a better way - and the cases of things I simply shouldn’t have bothered with. And while in retrospect, the signs were clear, it’s easy to kid yourself that doing something - anything - beats sweet FA.

The Power of No

Not doing something can be a wise option. Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile” covers the perils of intervention and lauds a 'via negativa’ approach; one of subtraction rather than addition. Don’t take more supplements - cut the junk food; don’t work longer hours - be more selective with your endeavours.

Taking this approach to our work and lives can trim the fat and make sure our energy is well spent. It will let us do fewer things to a higher standard, and allow us to forgive ourselves for what could be mistaken for simple laziness. As Taleb puts it, “Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.”

So these days, before really going after it, I question how worthwhile it is. I ask myself: "What would happen if I didn’t do this?"

If I can live with the answer, I find something better.


Editor's Note: Jamal's approach and question put us in mind of the Strategic Question that Michael Bungay Stanier spoke of in our recent podcast: “If you say yes to this, what must you say no to?”.  To hear more on getting super focused to do your great work, you can find the interview with Michael here.


Your Turn: What do you need to subtract right now to say yes to more things that matter?  Leave a comment below and let us know!



Our Guest Author: Jamal Cassim

Jamal has worked in the communications industry since 2006 across some of the world’s biggest (and smallest) brands. Fascinated by internet culture and storytelling, he is also co-founder of Page War. Follow him on Linkedin and Instagram