Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. –Paul in Colossians 3:23-24 NIV
When we clarify what’s important, we can simplify our lives.
Here’s how you can take simple steps to begin simplifying your life.
Start by making a list of everything you did yesterday. Think of this as your to-do list, except it’s actually a to-done list. Put everything on there, even the things that didn’t necessarily need to get done. You went to the grocery store, had a lunch meeting, picked up the kids from school, washed the car, watched a movie, brushed your teeth, etc. Put it all on there, but do it as fast as you can. Try to limit yourself to one or two minutes.
Now that you’ve created the list, circle the things that moved you forward personally or professionally. These are the big things. Maybe you closed a deal, finished a presentation, or ran a mile. They don’t necessarily have to be “big”—just circle the things that you look back on and are proud of accomplishing. Maybe you’re thinking, Well, there’s nothing like that on my list. That’s okay. Write down something you wish you had done and circle that instead.
The tasks you’ve circled we’ll call moose. And the tasks you accomplished but didn’t circle we’ll call monkeys. I’m going to show you how you can chase these things.
If you are a parent, you’ve probably had a day when you awakened to the sound of children in the kitchen. You walked in and low and behold, your kids had decided to cook themselves breakfast. And by cook, I mean make cereal. And by make cereal, I mean pour milk and cereal all over the counter and the floor.
This isn’t how you wanted to start the day, but okay, it is what it is. You clean up the mess, get them fed, get them dressed, and get them out the door. You arrive at work, but you’re late. You scramble into the meeting in complete shambles and play catch-up with whatever it is you’re talking about that day. Then you leave the meeting and spend the rest of the morning answering emails that you didn’t get to yesterday. You realize you’re falling behind on the day, so you eat lunch quickly and then get back to your desk.
Suddenly, it’s 1:07 p.m. and you can’t remember what you were even hoping to get done today. So you spend the next few hours at work trying to catch up on all the managerial tasks you’ve forgotten, and a few hours later you’re on your way home. When you get back, your spouse oh so kindly asks, “How was work today?” and for the life of you, you can’t even remember a single thing you accomplished.
Been there? That’s a picture of a day spent chasing monkeys.
The monkeys are the smaller, less significant tasks that come up throughout the day. They’re the urgent things that aren’t inherently “bad”—they’re just things that take up time and energy. For example, putting gas in your car can be a monkey. It’s something you have to get done, but it’s not necessarily something that will move you forward toward your greater goals (unless you work as an Uber driver, in which case it’s an important task). Answering emails can be another monkey. Again, it has to happen, but it’s not something that makes you feel super accomplished when it’s done.
Much like chasing actual monkeys, these tasks feel elusive and frustrating and often take more energy to do than we feel they should. Or they don’t feel as rewarding as we want them to.
What you want to hear is me saying, “Forget your monkeys! Don’t let those little things get in your way!” Unfortunately, no. I’m not here to tell you to shirk your monkeys. You still need to put gas in your car and answer emails. Those things have to happen. But you need to look at these tasks with a different perspective.
The problem isn’t the monkeys themselves. It’s that they feel like they divert us from achieving our big-picture goals. So what do we do? We simplify.
First, stop chasing monkeys that don’t need chasing. You know what these tasks are. Most likely, they’re things that need to be delegated to others. If you’re a middle manager still filling out everyone’s expense reports, you’re chasing monkeys. If your job is crunching numbers, but you find yourself leading creative meetings, reevaluate your position. Delegate those things that don’t support your why to other people, if you can.
Of course, we all have aspects of our jobs that we don’t necessarily want to do. But some of those things, although they are monkeys, still need to be done by us. So here’s the second strategy: batch and catch. Instead of letting one monkey derail your day, think about how you can put all your monkeys together and view them as a moose (I’ll show you what a moose looks like in a moment). Instead of letting little tasks take you away from your big goals, save all your little tasks for one day and turn that batch of tasks into one big goal.
For you, this might look like saving all your monkeys for one day of the week. You can use that day to catch up on all the monkeys you’ve ignored. The reason this strategy is so helpful is because catching monkeys individually is unfulfilling—those are the days that feel unproductive even though you did a lot. And many of us are stuck in days like this, where we accomplish a lot but feel as though we’ve done nothing at all.
As we learn to simplify our lives, we should see days like that becoming few and far between. When we get rid of the things that don’t support our why, we’re more apt to focus our time and energy on what’s important—our moose.
Your moose are your top priorities. In an ideal world, attending to your moose is all you would do with your day. Like we mentioned earlier, these are the important things that help you reach your ultimate goal. They’re the reason you are doing your job and living your life.
When you catch (accomplish) a moose, it feels like a big weight off your chest. Days when you get the big things done are days when you can go home and breathe easy. A lot of us, however, feel like we have fifteen moose. And if you’re like me, you probably got frustrated reading about monkeys. You were thinking, He doesn’t understand—little tasks aren’t my problem. I have a dozen important things I have to do every day!
Maybe you do. I’m almost positive you do. We all have important things that need to get done. But the problem is we stretch ourselves too thin by trying to accomplish ten big things every day. And when we do this, we almost never hit our goals and almost always go home frustrated. So what do we need to do? You guessed it: simplify.
Simplify your day. Pick three moose at most and catch those today. When it comes to your important tasks, take the exact opposite approach you take with your urgent tasks. We just said that catching monkeys is best when you do all of them at once. The opposite is true for moose. Take them one at a time and pace yourself.
See how this metaphor starts to make sense? If someone tasked you with catching a real-life moose—which is an admittedly bizarre task—would you try to catch ten moose? Of course not! One is overwhelming as it is.
But think about how you would feel if you tried to catch ten but caught only one. You’d be frustrated, defeated, and exhausted. In contrast, if you had realistic expectations and focused on catching one moose at a time, showing up at home with a moose in tow would make for a great day!
That’s how we need to start looking at our tasks. Break them down into urgent (monkeys) and important (moose), and treat them accordingly.
This simplified approach to life will relieve you of the burden of trying to do too much, and it will also clarify where you’re going—because simplicity brings clarity.
Excerpted with permission from How to Lead in a World of Distraction: four Simple Habits for Turning Down the Noise by Clay Scroggins, copyright Clay Scroggins, 2019.
* * *
Do you experience frustration that busy-work often drags you away from deeper, more meaningful work? What is one busy-work “monkey” you will eliminate from your schedule this week, and what is a more meaningful “moose” task or project you will tackle this week?