Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And I’m here with you on this journey to learn how and why to understand each other. I have one simple question for you today. What would you do with an extra day each week?
Today I will share an inspiring story, something counterintuitive I have learned, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to increase your productivity by 20% while working less or the equivalent of getting an extra day a week. Let’s get to it.
Remember to teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within 24 to 48 hours of listening.
It was April 2020, and the disruption caused by the pandemic was still fresh. The CEO at Uncharted, a company that helps nonprofits get funding to scale their impact. Began to wonder if this was the worst time or the best time to try to run this radical experiment. The CEO Banks Benitez has always been what he calls a brute force entrepreneur. He said, “I’m a hustler. I will get it done. In the past. There were no trade-offs for me.”
This all started to change when he became fascinated by the idea of accomplishing more by doing less. And this crescendoed into a 90-day experiment to see if the company as a whole could achieve a four-day work week. The goal wasn’t to push 40 hours of work into four days. It was to have a hundred percent pay with a hundred percent contribution, but with 80% of the time. That is 40 hours’ worth of results with 32 hours of input. He hired a third-party evaluator who took baseline data at the beginning, middle, and end of the experiment. They studied hours worked, mental health, and overall contribution. Leaders and employees were excited about the experiment because, you know, who doesn’t want to accomplish more by doing less? Yet, they almost immediately faced a challenge. Banks’ brute force entrepreneurship had permeated throughout their culture. Day by day, this approach had limited the kind of conversations people felt they were allowed to have. The hustle, get it done, no trade-offs approach had had an unintended effect. It hadn’t led to a can-do culture. It had led to a “can’t say no” culture. Many people felt they only had two choices. The polite yes or the rude no. And because they didn’t want to look uncooperative, they really only had one option – nodding yes, no matter what they really thought.
That was the breakthrough for Benitez. The conversation they started in a book club that they launched gave permission for people to have new conversations, breakthrough conversations outside the book club. The conversations in the book club were one thing, but it was really the conversations outside of it that changed everything. For example, Benitez and his executive assistant Lindsay had started to have a new conversation. She explained how often she was asked to be a firefighter to respond to urgent requests, to meet pressing issues, regardless of whether they were essential or not.
But that the expectation was always, always that she would just say yes. Benitez said the conversation was a turning point. Instead of Lindsay being an order taker, she became more of a trusted advisor. They discussed how can we really partner together. What are the ways that she can actually push back and tell me, no, actually, I don’t have time for that this week? Or you’re asking me to do something that if I say, yes, I’ll have to deprioritize something else. He put it this way. That Essentialism was a gateway into a greater peership conversation. A partnership conversation about how we could work together as a CEO team to get the most essential work done. And there were lots of conversations like that. Even junior employees were empowered to advocate for what was essential instead of simply allowing the hierarchy to win.
So when Benitez would spontaneously, reactively say in excitement to an employee, oh my gosh, we should do this. Or, Hey, I need help over here. This is the most exciting thing of the world. This new opportunity that I’ve just been thinking about for the last 10 minutes, people on this team would say, well, I’m working on something else. How important is it? When is it due by? Can I get to it later? So Benitez told me those second-order questions were so sobering for me. He thought what they’re working on is way more important. And they’re the ones that are way more disciplined. He learned that it doesn’t take more than one or two questions to create some dialogue around the importance of what to prioritize. He learned that it doesn’t take more than one or two questions to create some dialogue around the importance of what to prioritize. These conversations were small in one sense, tiny, really, but the effect they had was remarkable. Benitez and the other leaders at Uncharted leaned into them. When they wanted people to do things, they started to ask, what would you have to deprioritize to collaborate with me?
These conversations collapsed the power dynamics within the organizational structure. Managers weren’t just asking for help anymore. They were giving the person the agency to say, well, listen, there are trade-offs that exist, and I will be sacrificing this thing over here to help you over there. Or I am happy to help you, but I won’t be able to do X, Y, and zed. Instead of undisciplined conversations about doing more, they had disciplined conversations about doing less. At the end of their 90-day experiment, they had the outside firm test again. What happened? It had worked. 20% increase in productivity. They were now achieving in four days what used to take five. So it became their permanent policy, their way of doing business. They moved to a four-day work week. They even gathered examples of how this had improved the quality of life of the employees.
They asked them to share some of the things they were doing with that significant time rebate. Some people took up old hobbies, again, learning guitar and piano. Some people were able to create space to make memories with their children with their families. Others were taking time to rest and recuperate. So here’s the point. The right conversations can give you a full day back every week. You can accomplish more by doing less, but you have to have the right conversations. But more important than all of this, what about you? Do you wish you could increase your productivity while reducing your workload?
What would you do with an extra day each week?
Think of the value of that. And what conversations would you need to have to be able to accomplish more by doing less? Yes. The right conversations can give you a full day back every week.
So what’s the actionable advice here? Sometimes when people get into essentialism, they’ll say to me something like, well, I couldn’t just say no to my boss or my boss’s boss just like that. And I think, yeah, I wouldn’t start there either. You know, if you do that, that’s just a quick way to getting fired. That would be if I’d written a book called No-ism, and I didn’t write that book. This is Essentialism, but don’t avoid the conversations either. That’s a way to becoming an order taker. What you want is to go from being an order taker to becoming a trusted advisor.
And that means initiating a conversation. So next time an urgent or an exciting idea comes up for you. Don’t just react to it; pause and have a conversation. Three conversations you might consider. And when I say conversation, I don’t just mean with other people. First, I mean, having a conversation with yourself. I mean, you have almost certainly so many meetings, but have you also scheduled a meeting with yourself every day to talk about what’s essential and what’s not? I was with a group of senior leaders recently and asked them if any of them had written a list of what they needed to accomplish today and put it in priority order. Not one had. So in the meeting with yourself, start with that. Then when ideas come through the day, you can ask yourself, well, how important is this? How does this stack up against my highest priority right now? And here’s a great conversation to have with yourself. Ask if I don’t get this done, how disappointed will I be compared to how disappointed I will be to not get the other items done on my list?
Your level of disappointment is another way to discern between the vital few and the trivial many. If you’re having a conversation with someone, when they’re asking you to do something, pause and ask a second-order question. How important is this? When is it due by? Can I get to it later? You could share; here is what I’m working on. Is this more important than what I’m already doing? Or another way of asking that is what should I deprioritize in order to prioritize this? All of those questions may feel awkward at first because there’s a change going on if you’ve always been good old so and so who just says yes, who takes it on at the last moment, barely without even thinking about it. It will change the relationship, the dynamic, but of course, you don’t have to get perfect at this all at once. And you don’t want to try and change massively all in a single moment. What you want is slow growth. Tiny changes in your conversations will lead to extraordinary results over time.
A third type of conversation is where you are asking for something from someone else. And in that case, I would encourage the same kinds of questions. Begin with, what am I interrupting? And ask them, what would you need to say no to, in order to say yes to this? In order to help me achieve this, what are you needing to say no to? And coming back to the question we began with, what would you do with an extra day?
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Just think of the potential value in the Benitez story for you. Imagine what it would be to increase your productivity right now by 20% so that you really were accomplishing more while working less. What is the value, the advantage of gaining the equivalent of an extra day every week going forward? Thank you, really. Thank you for listening.