Lessons from Barack Obama – How Leaders can Simplify Life

By Heather Campbell

Barack Obama was a man who simplified life. He only wore blue or grey suits because it made it easy to decide what to put on each day. He cut out micro-decisions like this because it gave him headspace to focus on the important things. He knew that multiple micro-decisions led to stress and decision-fatigue. Apparently, Steve Jobs wore identical black outfits for the same reason.

Busy senior leaders need to channel this thinking too. But too often, they don’t and instead face overwhelm every day.

During April, I’m going to explore ways in which you can simplify your life by getting rid of the little things that don’t count but are costing you dear because you’re letting them take up space in your head.

This week, let’s explore three simple things you can do to cut out the clutter.

Empty your email inbox

I often coach leaders who have thousands of emails in their inbox even though they know they’ll never read them. They keep them there because they might be asked about one of them some day.

You will NEVER get through all those emails and their presence clutters up your mind every time you think about them or open your inbox.

During April, make a commitment that at the end of each day or each week – whichever works better for you – you archive every email from that week that you haven’t actioned or read. It’ll still be there if you need it but that overcrowded inbox is no longer taking up your attention. Starting with a clear inbox will mean you’re starting with a clear head too.

Fix one micro-mess each day for the next week

We all have micro-messes that we’re so used to, we almost don’t notice they exist and yet they’re getting in the way.

Maybe it’s that one messy desk drawer that means you can’t immediately find what you need, or the six pens that you don’t like writing with that irritate you every time you pick one up, or the shirt you put on that you don’t quite feel comfortable in and yet takes up wardrobe space.

Five days – five micro-irritations removed. Be ruthless. You’ll reap the rewards.

Remove yourself from one meeting each week for the rest of this month

If you’re like most of the leaders I coach, you will still fall foul of attending meetings you don’t need to attend, even though you know it’s a waste of time. I have no doubt you have at least one meeting in your diary every week that you don’t need to join.

It’s even likely that, if you’re the most senior leader there, you’re actually hampering other people’s ability to get on and make decisions because they defer to you. So, by excusing yourself from that meeting, you’re doing them a favour too.

Look at your diary now and commit to removing just one meeting each week.

And here’s the thing, keep that time blocked out of your diary BUT DON”T ADD ANYTHNG ELSE IN. When the time arrives, and you aren’t logging on to that meeting or heading into the Board room, ask yourself how you’d like to use the time. Decide in the moment. If the answer is, I just want to sit in silence, sit in silence. If the answer is, I want to find the answer to this one question, google the question or jump onto Chat GPT, and explore. If the answer is, I want to plan how to approach this particularly challenging problem, fab. Do that.

The real secret is that you’re giving your brain space to decide what to do when the time arrives rather than putting it under constant pressure to deliver.

Nothing here is irreversible. You can always go back to letting your inbox get crowded again in May, or create more micro-messes, or join that meeting again. So give yourself this little luxury for this month and, in May, decide how it’s working for you.

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