Obligation Elimination and other lessons

5 minute read article Leadership   Technology   Productivity Comments

I was scrolling through some OneNote notebooks tonight and ran across a few pages of highlights from some books I’ve read: Drive by Daniel Pink, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and It doesn’t have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

I know people have strong feelings about DHH, and that’s fine, but it’s hard to dispute the success 37signals has had over the years. They must be doing something right, and this book has some fantastic nuggets of wisdom I want to share. The other two books are fantastic, and I’ll share some of those highlights in other posts.

If you’re not familiar with the book, here’s a short blurb from the book jacket:

It’s time to stop celebrating Crazy, and start celebrating Calm, Fried and Hansson assert.

Fried and Hansson have the proof to back up their argument. “Calm” has been the cornerstone of their company’s culture since Basecamp began twenty years ago. Destined to become the management guide for the next generation, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is a practical and inspiring distillation of their insights and experiences. It isn’t a book telling you what to do. It’s a book showing you what they’ve done–and how any manager or executive no matter the industry or size of the company, can do it too.

My notes show I read it in 2018, and knowing where I was at the time, I was probably wondering why work was as crazy as it was. I was almost certainly nodding along as I read and probably mumbling “yup!” a lot.


Obligation Elimination

I highlighted 26 passages, but the one that spurred this post comes from page 172:

Saying no is the only way to claw back time. Don’t shuffle 12 things so you that you can do them in a different order, don’t set timers to move on from this or that. Eliminate 7 of the 12 things, and you’ll have time left for the 5. It’s not time management, it’s obligation elimination.

I like “obligation elimination” because we say yes to far too many things. It’s almost always out of some misplaced obligation we have at work, thinking that we need to be involved in everything. It’s common to see people who are double and triple-booked with meetings every single day of the week. On top of that, they participate in every single after-work activity! The bitch of it all is that these are the same people who always tell you how busy they are!

That’s never been me, and I’ll never understand why people do it, but they do.

Going back to my post on beating procrastination, being overloaded with “obligations” is a good time to bring out the Eisenhower Matrix to figure out what you truly need to be working on and what you can eliminate because I can guarantee there are things that can be eliminated.

Look, I know a lot of people say you should default to “Yes” but if that means being overloaded and overwhelmed and not being able to get your actual job done, you need to reconsider and throw an occasional “No” in the mix.


I’ll jump to the beginning of the book for another highlight, this one from page 4:

Out of the 60, 70, or 80 hours a week many people are expected to pour into work, how many of those hours are really spent on the work itself? And how many are tossed away in meetings, lost to distraction, and withered away by inefficient business practices? The bulk of them.

I’ve worked at companies where this was the case; so many meetings, so many processes, and so little time spent doing the actual work I was hired to do.

I talked to someone recently who said he’s in a minimum of 5 hours of meetings each day. Those meetings included three different stand-ups, along with other status-type meetings. Yikes!

This is followed by this great quote on page 6:

Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work–side effects of broken models and follow-the-lemmings-off-the-cliff worst practices.


We’re NOT a family

I’ve worked for a few companies that pulled the “we’re family here” line. Ugh. They address this on page 78:

The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. They’re there to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so that when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be.

As I get older, that’s all I want.

Decision Making

Page 153:

Someone in charge has to make the final call, even if others would prefer a different decision. Good decisions don’t so much need consensus and they need commitment.

Page 154:

Companies waste an enormous amount of time and energy trying to convince everyone to agree before moving forward on something. What they’ll often get is reluctant acceptance that masks secret resentment

Page 174 brings this gem:

Any conversation with more than three people is typically a conversation with too many people.

I’ve been a part of way too many meetings with 10, 15, 20+ people in them and I can say NOTHING gets done in these meetings. At best, another meeting is set, sometimes with more people, rarely with fewer. Decisions are deferred because the “right people” aren’t in the room, so they get added to another meeting, then at that meeting, they realize another key person is missing. All of this in search of consensus because no one wants to be responsible for making a decision.

In the end, many of those large meetings end up whittled back down to a couple people to make the decision.

Forced Change

People have no problems with change they asked for. What people don’t like is forced change–change they didn’t request on a timeline they didn’t choose. Your ‘new and improved’ can easily become their ‘what the fuck?’ when it is dumped on them as a surprise.

I’ve got nothing to add here other than forced change sucks.

Final Thoughts

There are more, but those are representative of the kinds of things I highlighted.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is a great book. So is Getting Real, Rework, and Remote, all written by Jason and David.

If you’ve got time, especially if you work in a chaotic environment, check this book out.

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