Cut, Cut, Cut: Elimination Strategies To Boost Productivity


Elimination is an underrated productivity strategy we all need to practice. It’s one of the best ways to eliminate that “crazy busy” feeling that make the week feel like a long slog.

If elimination is such a great strategy, why isn’t it more popular? There’s a few reasons to consider. First, cultural pressure starting in high school (I have to be well rounded to get into college/university with top grades and “extra-curricular activities”!) stresses adding activities as the path to success. Second, you have “people pleasing” behavior: many of us like to make others feel happy by saying yes to new requests. How do we overcome this scenario?

Elimination Fueled Productivity For Individuals

Becoming more productive through elimination is rewarding once you get started. Before you start the elimination process, you need a positive aim.

1. Identify Your #1 Goal

What are you making room for with elimination? To get started, identify your number one goal. You may have multiple goals for the year (I have 10 for 2017). In that case, I encourage you to use the question from “The One Thing” book (see further reading for details).

One Thing Question:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Tip: Do several of your other goals require money (e.g. contribute to investment accounts, take courses, travel)? In that case, your #1 goal will likely involve earning more money.

2. Brainstorm An Elimination List of 10 Ideas

Now that you have a clear goal in mind, it is time to come up with elimination ideas. The focus is on volume, rather than quality. Here are examples that I recently came up with:

1. Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer interest me (use – I recently cut 50+ no longer relevant email subscriptions from my inbox)

2. Throw away 5 items of old clothing that is worn out (makes it easier to assess clothing options)

3. Review current subscriptions: are there magazine subscriptions to eliminate (I find 1-2 per month goes a long way)

4. Automate one bill payment for monthly payment (e.g. my cell phone bill is currently a manual payment)

5. Review recurring meetings on my professional calendar: are there any to eliminate or consolidate?

6. Make a list of monthly reports I produce and check if the audience truly needs them (here’s how to ask that: “What would happen if I stopped delivering this report?”). This method has been a major time saver for me in the corporate world.

7. Review volunteer commitments for value and meaning. Volunteering is worthwhile… However, you need to keep such activities in the context of the rest of your life. For example, if want to deliver a project or program directly then serving on a committee may not be fulfilling.

8. Reduce digital clutter. Earlier this week, I cleaned up my office computer so that there is only one row of icons. It’s a small way to add clarity and order to your world. The same can be said of smart phone apps.

9. Job Responsibility Creep. Over time, many of us take on random “extra duties” at work. Now is the time to look at those and ask yourself if they make sense with your review. For example, maybe you are asked to serve as a subject matter expert on call to other departments but that distracts you from creating code. In that case, use the same process as point 6 above to pursue elimination.

10. Reduce social media time. Social media can be wonderful! However, these services make it easy to lose a whole afternoon (or more) in mindless clicking that does little but add anxiety to your life. If this scenario rings true for you, consider setting schedule boundaries (e.g. no social media after 6pm) to keep these tools in check.

Note: Ask yourself if you can eliminate a task or activity entirely first. If that is not feasible, consider reducing frequency or automation options.

3. Implement 1 Elimination Change Within 24 Hours

Now the rubber meets the road. It’s time to get to action. Review the list of elimination options you identified in the previous step. To get started with the process, choose the easiest one to eliminate (i.e. that takes 15 minutes or less time). If all you need to do is log into a website, this step will be easy.

If your elimination idea is more complex – killing a corporate report – you can still act. How? In 15 minutes, write up what why you want to eliminate the report, who receives it and send a calendar invitation to propose eliminating it.

4. Proactively Schedule Maker Time

Noted investor and essayist Paul Graham draws a distinction between “Manager Time” and “Maker Time” in his classic essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In project management, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allocating most or all of your energy in the “manager” mode. However, that’s not going to cut it if you want to achieve your goals.

Before you finish this article, take action to put maker time on your calendar. In my case, I recently added Maker Time for Saturdays and Sunday mornings. Why those times? I like to have long stretches of uninterrupted time and the weekends are best for that. There’s no reason you can’t make a similar block on week days.

Further Reading on Productivity & Elimination

To continue your productivity journey of elimination, explore these books and articles. Remember to keep the focus on your purpose. What will you do with the extra time and energy? Apply it to your One Thing goal! (Of course, if you’re burned out from work, rest and relaxation is a great choice as well.)

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Do you want a book length treatment on focusing on what matters to the exclusion of all else? This is the book for you.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s one of the best productivity books I’ve read. I appreciate the care and attention the authors took with research and tactical advice. I hope that a future addition will illustrate the One Thing principle with additional examples and case studies.

How to Say “No” When It Matters Most (or “Why I’m Taking a Long ‘Startup Vacation’”) by Tim Ferriss. Long time readers will know that Tim Ferriss is an inspiration to me (a favorite Christmas present from 2016 was his newest book “Tools of Titans”). In this article, Ferriss explains why he decided to take a ‘vacation’ from startup investing. Here’s what’s most striking about that move – this investing activity is probably one of the most (i.e. 10X-100X returns in some cases) lucrative activities in his career… Yet he decided to call it quits. Read the article for the details and what led to the decision.

Stop Doing Low-Value Work. This Harvard Business Review article by Priscilla Claman defines several circumstances where you have a great opportunity to cut low value work from your plate such as during job transitions.

Things to Stop Doing in 2015. Written by Sarah Green Carmichael and Gretchen Gavett in Harvard Business Review, this article has great suggestions. Stop sitting so much is one of the tips! Fortunately, my office recently upgraded to “stand-sit” desks so I’m well on my way to less sitting.

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7 thoughts on “Cut, Cut, Cut: Elimination Strategies To Boost Productivity

  1. Excellent perspective, Bruce, thanks for sharing. If nothing else, this methodology will produce a clarity of purpose that in itself will increase productivity.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I just created a stop-doing list! I appreciate how much you focus on actionable takeaways – and realize it takes a lot of thought to give us so quality reference material and book recommendations with each post. Thank you! Well done!

  3. Bruce, great job. This reminded me of the concept in Lean of eliminating waste, but how much of our day anyway is taken up with unproductive personal things that end up making us feel like we didn’t accomplish anything we wanted to? 🙂

  4. Bruce, thanks for the article. I’m currently reading “The More of Less” by Joshua Becker, a book to help individuals reduce clutter and associated distractions. The book has caused me to think a lot about the clutter we have in our projects and how it reduces our productivity. Your article certainly underscores the importance of these principles and provides some great resources (love the books – Essentialism and The One Thing). Have a great day!

    • Harry, thanks for stopping by. I hadn’t heard of the Becker book – always good to know about other books in the category.