Except for the one or two things that do.
One of the most important things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that most things don’t matter.
Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, there are usually just a couple of things on that to-do list that will actually make a difference. I’m not saying the rest of the items on your list shouldn’t get done . . . I’m just saying they probably don’t need to be done well.
There are two big benefits of taking this perspective.
First, it means you can relax. So much of our daily stress comes from the feeling that we’re leaving things undone, or not doing them well, or that we “didn’t put in that extra 10%.” If you start from the assumption that not much really matters, you can let most things be imperfect.
Second, it allows you to focus a disproportionate amount of time on the one or two things that do matter. Triage is such an underrated skill. But if you can correctly determine which one or two things will—if you get them right—make the difference between success and failure, then you can spend your time taking those to a high level of polish rather than wasting your time on everything else.
It’s a power curve. We have no problem accepting that a superstar athlete (Lionel Messi, Simone Biles, LeBron James, etc.) can carry a team and make the difference between success and failure. We understand that a great coder can be dramatically more productive than a simply good one. So why is it so hard to recognize that to-do list items are the same way?
This power curve is even more pronounced on your to-do list than it is on a basketball court. My guess is that the top two items are orders of magnitude more impactful than numbers 5 and 6 on the list. And ask yourself: “What would really happen if I never did number 9 or 10?”
Universal perfection is overrated. Ultra-high-end resorts, luxury automobiles, and Michelin three-star restaurants have all won their places by delivering an experience that is engineered to be as perfect as possible.
But this level of perfection is absurdly expensive, which either dramatically limits their audience, or requires an outlandish subsidy. The Rivian costs $33,000 more to manufacture than what they sell them for. And Noma, for many years considered the best restaurant in the world, has decided to shut down completely, after concluding that having 100 employees preparing food for 100 diners per night is simply “unsustainable.”
Furthermore, behind all this perfection, I’m pretty sure that Rivian, Noma, and all the other high achievers have done exactly what I’m suggesting. They have chosen to perfect the customer-facing aspects of their business and left the rest to be simply adequate.
When we launched Netflix in 1998, I decided that there were only two things that mattered: differentiation and customers.
To differentiate ourselves from Blockbuster, we wanted to have “every single DVD available” and spent innumerable hours making that claim true. We knew that with a single warehouse serving the entire country, we could do this with a copy or two of each movie. But to match us, Blockbuster, with 9,000 stores, would need to buy more than 10,000 copies of each movie: an expenditure that made no sense since, at that time, each Blockbuster neighborhood may only have had 3 or 4 customers who owned a DVD player.
The other critical thing we needed was customers. And with less than a quarter of a million DVD players scattered around the country, there was no economically viable way of reaching them. So, I spent months camped out in one New Jersey office park or another, working to convince the Sonys, Toshibas and Panasonics of the world, to include a Netflix coupon in their box.
Were there other things we had to get done? Sure. We had to build a website. We had to be able to ship and receive movies. We needed functioning customer service. But did they have to be any good? Absolutely not.
And they weren’t. Our website crashed repeatedly less than 15 minutes into launch day. We ran short of shipping supplies. We had to manually write the ship confirmation emails we sent to customers. But we knew none of that would matter if there wasn’t a compelling reason to try Netflix in the first place and if customers never heard about us.
This kind of triage approach comes naturally to startups since they are perpetually under-resourced. If you make the mistake of thinking you must do everything, you simply end up with everything done halfway. Instead, the most successful startups focus on the one or two things that do make the difference and do them 110%.
But every company can apply this thinking, simply by dramatically under-resourcing in some areas. For example, once we finally figured things out at Netflix and began to grow, we consciously decided not to increase the size of our customer service team, knowing that a lean, under-resourced group would force them to figure out how to do things more efficiently and make important decisions about what not to do.
In a recent post about my to-do list, I said that one of the biggest benefits of reviewing your list every day was that it gave you a chance—every day—to decide what you weren’t going to do.
My advice? Try applying that thinking to every aspect of your life. You’ll start seeing all the things that really don’t matter. And free up more time for the one or two things that do.
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Podcast Episode 72
October 25, 2022 • 38 min