I read a story from Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, about a phone call a few years ago with Steve Jobs where he asked for advice on how to improve Nike.  Steve’s reply was this:

“Well, just one thing,” said Jobs. “Nike makes some of the best products in the world. Products that you lust after. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.” Mark said he waited for a chuckle from Steve but he didn’t laugh. He was serious. And he was right, Mark realized.

This reminds me of Steven Covey’s imperative: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

People (and companies) lose sight of their ONE main thing along the way. There’s an excellent book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth about Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan.

The book focuses on how to avoid distractions and concentrate on the one thing that is the most important at that point in time, whether in your personal or work life.

I’m ancient enough to remember being entertained by a professional plate spinner featured on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. He’d start with one dinner plate spinning on top of a tall, thin pole, and as long as he gave it a helping hand often enough, it would spin fast, stay in balance, and not fall off the tip of the pole. I realize how lame this must sound as prime-time entertainment, but it actually got more exciting as he added more plates spinning on more poles simultaneously. He’d have to quickly move from pole to pole to assist any wobbling plate and prevent a crash. He became frantically busy spinning plates on more than a dozen poles. He was incredibly focused on keeping them all going while adding more. A grizzly bear could have walked up to him on stage and he would not have noticed.

Now that you have this visual, ask yourself how much of your day is spent spinning plates, hyper-focused on preventing crashes, and wondering at the end of the day if much was actually accomplished.

Adding MORE is often a mistake. At some point, you’ll either fall over from the exhaustion of keeping too many plates in the air, or you’ll start hearing one loud crash after another. Maybe what’s missing is the decision and follow-through to simplify, to choose a narrower focus instead of a larger list of things to manage.

As Steve Jobs advised, just “focus on the good stuff.” It can take courage and discipline to decide what “the good stuff” is, but if you’re a leader, that’s your job.

Whether it’s your sales efforts at work or your kids’ after-school activities, keep the main thing the main thing. If adding more takes away the quality of what you already have in your domain, don’t pile on; in fact, it’s important to do what Parker with Nike had to do and identify what makes sense to stop doing. Sometimes what is needed is to change your approach or delegate the task to someone else.

If you could only choose one plate to commit your efforts to keep spinning in perfect balance, what would that look like? And what could you easily add that would not diminish the performance of that one key priority? Build your action plan by starting with all your attention on the one most important priority. Bring excellence to that in every way possible. Only add more “plates” as you can confidently do without causing your priority to lose its highly balanced performance. Distractions will eventually destroy what is most valuable.

And that is the point. Sure, when you eliminate distractions and stop spreading yourself too thin you will be more “productive”—but more importantly, you are freed up to honor what you value most. Only when, as Jobs put it, you “get rid of the crappy stuff” do you have the opportunity for true greatness. You may think you don’t have much “crappy stuff” and that you have so much going on because you’ve attracted many good things and people into your sphere; however, “good is the enemy of best.” When you identify your top values, that awareness can help you. You can pay attention with a level of extraordinary effectiveness. You can put your whole heart into what’s truly important and that is how you achieve unparalleled excellence.

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