What Should I Do Now?

by | Apr 15, 2014 | Essential Reading | 6 comments

I t’s not that you particularly want to read your email, it’s more like you feel compelled. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of dread, and partly out of confusion.

What should you do now?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
–Mary Oliver

If you check your email, undoubtedly it will tell you.

At least, it will tell you what someone else would like you to do. But chances are you still haven’t answered that question yourself. Maybe you’re afraid to answer it. Maybe you don’t know how.

I have been in this place so many darn times. Trapped in the thinking, “I have to” instead of “I choose to.” Anxious because I can’t fit it all in. Worried because I don’t want to disappoint anyone, least of all my overachieving, perfectionist self.

Fortunately, I just received a book that addresses this very issue. Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Phase 1: You know what you want, you work hard, and you do it well.

Phase 2: You have success and become known as the “go to” person in your area. You are rewarded with more work and more opportunities.

Phase 3: With more work and more opportunities, your time and energy get diffused. You are spread thinner and thinner. You become more stressed, more tired, and ultimately, less clear on exactly how and where to make your best contribution.

No one ever plans to end up in Phase 3, but the more intelligent and ambitious you are, the more likely you are to get stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of busy, with very little reward.

These phases are what Greg McKeown, author of the new book Essentialism, calls the paradox of success. He says

“The Nonessentialist operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.”

The trick then, McKeown advocates, is the disciplined pursuit of less. Do fewer things, but do them better.

Practical Advice to Do Less, But Better

I love this idea. It seems like such a wonderful win-win idea for an overachiever—you don’t have to stop achieving, you just need to focus your achievement on those things that matter most and do them truly to the best of your ability.

He breaks this process down into 3 E’s:

  1. Explore: how to discern the trivial many from the vital few
  2. Eliminate: how to cut back
  3. Execute: how to make doing the vital few effortless

McKeown refers to his book as a “manifesto for a stressed out, meaningless life,” and indeed it reads that way. If you struggle with taking on too much, this book will help you see why you need to cut back in order to be more effective, something you probably already know in the abstract but could use some convincing to actually implement. The book also helps us understand the hidden motivations that drive this kind of behavior, so you can be more alert to it.

One of the most powerful stories in the book was that of Geoff, “a textbook overachiever who had a deep desire to make a difference. Geoff was ambitious, driven, and committed to making a contribution to the world.”

Sounds great, right? What in the world could be wrong with Geoff?

The pace of his work, primarily self-driven, started to affect his health. First a little, then so much that he couldn’t perform even basic tasks: too weak to attend meetings, too unfocused to deliver a good speech.

His doctor gave him a choice: either take drugs to deal with the symptoms the rest of his life or completely disengage from everything for one or two years to fully recover. He begrudgingly chose the latter.

Geoff learned some profound lessons from his sabbatical. He realized that for an overachiever, pushing oneself to the limit is not hard.

The real challenge for someone who thrives on challenges is to achieve success without working too hard for too long.

After all, it’s okay to work hard for short periods of time to accomplish something deeply meaningful. What’s not okay is to work hard all the time in pursuit of both the meaningful and the mundane. Seeing working less as a challenge in and of itself, rather than an obstacle to achievement, was a big reframe for me. As I recently posted on Facebook

The Roman poet Ovid once said, “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.” The question is: do you really want to spend your whole life running just so you can say, “I was better than them”?

Of course, to escape this mindset, you need to understand what success really means to you.

Unfortunately, figuring out what constituted “essential work” was perhaps the weakest part of the book. I remember at one point feeling like I had to pick just one thing, as if essential equated to singular. That’s not McKeown’s message, but I had difficulty seeing where to drawn the line by his method.

Fortunately, I’ve already come up with a personal definition of success (using the same process I’m teaching in my upcoming Overachiever’s Guide to Meaningful Success), and that made it much easier to apply the other ideas McKeown advocated in his Eliminate and Execute sections.

In fact, I see this book as an excellent complement. My definition of success lays out the blueprint for what I want to do with my life, but it doesn’t always show me how to do that over everything else (which I am always tempted to do). Essentialism is the blueprint for how to achieve that vision once you’ve got it.

For example, it became clear to me that public speaking will never be a big part of my business, because I don’t want the travel and time away from family that is often required.

And that’s okay. I’m good at speaking and enjoy it, but I’m also a good mother and wife. I enjoy making impacts at home as much as I do outside these four walls—a point I hope to never lose sight of.

That moment of giving something up that I enjoy and can excel at was big for me. Too often I would make trade-offs without meaning to, trade-offs I later regretted. McKeown gives some great advice on how to gracefully deliver a “no” to your boss, your friends, and colleagues, but the person I need to tell “no” to the most is myself.

I think I’m finally listening.


Congratulations to our winners of last-week’s giveaway!

Lisa, who is “looking forward to understanding what success really means” won a copy of the Overachiever’s Guide to Meaningful Success

Heather “who is looking forward to getting involved” won a 3-month membership to The Luminaries Club

As an added bonus, I’m including a free copy of Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism for both of you. I really liked it and I think you will too. I’ll be in touch by email with all the details on how to claim your prizes. I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks to everyone for the wonderful enthusiasm and support in the comments. My 6-year-old assistant was impressed and I was absolutely grinning ear to ear.

Both products will be released very soon (April 29 at 10 AM EDT to be exact). I hope you’ll channel that excitement into our founding group when you join!

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of McKeown’s book from the publisher. My review was in no way influenced by their generosity. If you choose to buy a copy using the link on this website, I will receive a small commission from the sale. Those commissions haven’t added up to enough to buy a box of crackers yet, but I’m hopeful.