How to de-clutter your career

A cup of tea is seen on an office table in Cornwall.

At work we must constantly be vigilant about possible interferences. Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Paolo Gallo
Adjunct Professor Bocconi University, Founder Compass Consulting, Executive Coach
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Devotion to a cause is the cornerstone of a successful career. But if we’re going to keep that commitment burning, we need to have the conviction that with enough willpower, we can get better at what we do, and overcome the inevitable setbacks.

The American psychologist Carol Dweck explained the difference between a growth mindset, that makes you think you're not wrong when you make a mistake but just learning new skills, and a fixed mindset, that leads you to think that “learning stops here”, that you are not – and never will be – good at something. No prizes for guessing which one will bring you to the next level at work.


As the saying goes, success is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration - meaning total devotion and focus. There are no shortcuts, and no giving up because we get something wrong. We need to have discipline, sweat, perseverance and focus. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, put it, "Energy and persistence conquer all things," and "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

Once I had the opportunity of attending a press conference with Eric Clapton, considered by many to be one of the most gifted guitar players in the world. Someone asked him what he was doing as a hobby. “I play guitar,” he responded. The person who asked the question replied: “Why do you play the guitar, you are the best player in the world!” Eric Clapton replied: “That’s why I am the best player in the world: devotion, every day”.

A simple equation to help you focus

If we’re going to keep our focus, we need to be aware of the danger of interferences. Let me explain this with a simple formula: our performance will be equal to the difference between our potential and interferences, multiplied by Devotion (D):

P = (P-I) x D

How do we define interference in this context? Quite simply, it is everything that distracts us from our purpose.

Wasting time is worse than wasting money

Follow me in this exercise: write down on a sheet of paper the five most important things in your life. Then try to observe and evaluate how much time and effort you are actually investing in achieving them, whether they are a broader purpose, or more specific goals and objectives. The question is: when you look at your list do you allocate your devotion and energy into what really counts? You can also carry out the same exercise during the budget process at work: it is always funny to verify the elegant degree of hypocrisy in many organizations.

We must constantly be vigilant about possible interferences, doing our best to minimize and manage them. The time we have is not an infinite. Wasting time is much worse than wasting money, since time cannot be recovered while you can always earn back money. The time available to us is priceless: no amount of money can buy us back one day of our life. It’s funny: people are amazingly jealous and protective of their possessions, but at times cheerfully indifferent of their time.

The importance of the pause button

I have often noticed that too many people put in an extraordinary effort at work, but in an extraordinarily disorderly fashion. Without the discipline of focus we become frantically paralyzed, eaten up by anxiety, unable to pause and incapable of valuing our own time properly. Many people fall into the trap of thinking that if their system of work isn’t getting results, they should just speed up, and do the same thing faster. It would be much better to stop: to hit pause, understand the interference, analyse the unnecessary distractions and take action to blot them out.

For example, a colleague of mine made four intercontinental trips in the same month to give a 30-minute speech, while all the time regretting he had no time for his kids. He should re-focus on what is important, and reflect on balancing his ego with his priorities.

Dangerous distractions

It's not only the speed of our working lives that poses a challenge, but the direction we take. Before we really realise what’s happening, interferences can push us off course, so we deviate from our original path. Some distractions - the unimportant email, the poorly timed phone call - will take away only few minutes; others make us lose years.

Take for example dealing with situations such as toxic relationships, both in our personal and professional life, or struggling towards the next step in the corporate ladder when the promotion is clearly not going to happen, or mindlessly competing in the rat race – when even if you win, you are still a rat. We should be extremely vigilant about interferences and distractions, clearing them from our path so we are able to focus on what is really relevant to a meaningful life.

“Life is long if you know how to use it”

This idea is not just relevant to today’s highly pressured corporate world. Some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca expressed exactly the same belief:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.... So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Only by identifying and eliminating distractions can we pursue our purpose with all our energy and passion.

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