ARTICLE: “Professionals Must Simplify Their Lives” by Laura M. Stack, MBA

Professionals Must Simplify Their Lives

We’ve been restructured, reengineered, downsized, right-sized—and now we’re left with more work to do than ever before. The Information Age is here and now, with information literally available at our fingertips. So, what’s next? Most professionals that I poll informally in my audiences across the country say that at this point in their lives, they would rather have more time than money. The Age of Simplicity is dawning. We’ve simply been overloaded by information, overworked by our organizations, and overcommitted across all other aspects of our lives. We’re looking to simplify, become more efficient, live life fully, make the right choices, and pursue what’s important to us.

“But if I just had more time, I could get it all done!” I hear people say again and again. Well, brace yourselves friends, because you can’t have it. Time is the one thing that is consistent—24 hours in every day. Oh, sure, you could get up an hour earlier every day five days a week, or stay up an hour later. That would be...let’s see...roughly 240 extra hours a year, divided by 24 hours in a day, would produce 10 extra days a year! However, could you possibly be productive at 4:30 a.m. when you already get up at 5:30 a.m., or 12:00 midnight when you already go to bed at 11:00 p.m.? We’re already stretched beyond the maximum effort and minimum sleep requirements. Besides, I know that even if I had a 30-hour day, I would still have a pile of projects I wanted to start or finish, books to read, places to go, and things to do.... Wouldn’t you? It’s almost a law of nature that there will always be more things to do than time to do them. So, to make sure you’re spending your time on the best mix possible, you have to challenge every single thing you do in life and ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” Once in a while, you need to stop, get off the treadmill, engage your brain, and ask yourself how you could do things differently.

The best way to do this exercise is to get a blank piece of paper, make two columns, and label one “Non-Negotiables,” and the other “Negotiables.” The things that you feel you must do in life, or have to do, are the non-negotiables. The things you’d rather be doing, or would like to do, are the negotiables. The first step is to spend ten minutes brainstorming these areas in your life. Take an introspective look at how you spend your days and weeks—first a very broad view, then more specific. For example, you may list work, taking care of kids, doing laundry, cooking, yard work, cleaning, attending PTA meetings, visiting your mother every Sunday, and going grocery shopping as your non-negotiables. 

The second step is look at each mandatory activity and challenge yourself by asking, “is this item really non-negotiable?” Streamlining your life involves analyzing each non-negotiable on your list because they keep you from the negotiables. Unfortunately, negotiables usually get fit in wherever they can, or put on the back burner while we run from one non-negotiable to the next. Sometimes negotiables don’t get done at all. Unfortunately again, most people typically put the really important things in life in the negotiable column. I frequently see activities such as hobbies, exercise, more sleep, socialize, more time with family, read, and relax in others’ negotiable column. Hmmm…. Shouldn’t exercise be non-negotiable? Shouldn’t we be spending more time with our families? Do you ever have any time for yourself? How about social activities (do you have any friends left)?

So, the question becomes—how do you change the mix in your life so that you spend more time in the pleasure column? You could a) perform required tasks more efficiently, b) manage your time more effectively, and/or c) get rid of activities in the non-negotiable column and discipline yourself to replace the available time with a negotiable item. It’s so easy to fill up your time with more things you “have” to do! How do you get rid of non-negotiables? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Hire It Out—I used to say to myself, “I will never hire anyone to clean my house for me; I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself; what a waste of money!” Until I starting tracking how much time I spent cleaning—5 hours a week on average! That’s 20 hours per month and approximately 250 hours per year! I now have a woman who comes into my home every other week. She cleans the entire house in two hours and charges me $12.50 an hour, or $25. Is it worth it? For 250 hours of “want-to” time per bet! That comes out to only $10 per hour. My time is certainly worth more than $10 an hour! Think about hiring out your yard work, paperwork and filing, laundry, errands, and gardening. Let others practice their specialties, you practice yours.

2. Have It Delivered—I used to have an 80-pound beast (disguised as a dog) named Damien who plowed through 50-pound bags of dog food in no time. I remember thinking that I lived at the pet store on the weekends. I had a company deliver huge plastic drums of wet and dry dog food right to my door when I ran out! It’s cheaper than the store brands, and better quality. And the convenience of delivery too? Wow! Think about having groceries, diapers, stamps, milk, office supplies, and dry cleaning delivered. In most cases cheaper than doing it yourself, if you factor in the value of your time. Look at every non-negotiable in your life, and ask if there’s another way to get that task done.

3. Reduce Your Standards—What could I possibly mean by that? Often you delegate a task then act surprised when it you’re suddenly in charge of it again. How does this happen? Let’s say (pretend) you get your significant other to go to the grocery store for you, then you berate him when he arrives home with the wrong kind of peanut butter. What happens? He never goes again. Congratulations, that non-negotiable lands right back in your lap! Why? Your expectations were too high. Ask yourself, “Is it good enough?” You have peanut butter, so who cares! So let me suggest that one way to reduce “non-negotiable” time in your life is to get rid of your picky-picky standards. If a secretary makes the occasional blooper on an internal memo that’s not even going outside the company, or has a writing style that you don’t prefer, do you have to “fix” it if it’s technically correct? Of course, if it’s a seven-million-dollar proposal, you cross every “T” and dot every “I.” But if it’s good enough, let it go.

4. Barter—You may also have someone in your life who is open to an exchange of their services for yours. They may LOVE doing what you are completely resistant about and vice versa. For example, if you hate to wash windows, trade it with your neighbor to steam clean their carpet. Trade baby-sitting services. I know two women that have a wonderful trade going. One loves to do crafts, and the other loves to bake. So, at holiday time, one wraps the other’s presents and decorates her home, and the second woman bakes all the holiday goodies for the other and prepares her holiday meals. What a great exchange!

5. Refuse—Some of you have a jam-packed life because you just can’t say, “NO”! First, you must be realistic. The world will not stop revolving if you don’t chair the PR committee. Your friend won’t hate you if you don’t go shopping on Saturday. Second, think of other ways to accommodate requests made by others. Instead of baking homemade brownies for the Girl Scout meeting, offer to buy some during your next shopping trip instead. If it’s not good enough, the planner will ask someone else. Great! If your boss is overloading you, say “I’ll be glad to handle that for you. However, I can’t get to it until I finish the XYZ project. That will be...” Or, ask her or him what the priorities are for the different pieces of work on your plate and negotiate a due date. That’s a reasonable way to call the existing workload to you boss’s attention, and you won’t be fired for pointing out that you can only do one task at a time.

You get healthy only when you really want to, when there is something you want to accomplish, and when there’s an incentive. I propose to you that the negotiables are the only incentive you need to simplify your life. I honestly believe that to be successful in life, you do have to work hard. But working smart makes working hard easier!

© 1999 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at