In the days of grand ocean liners, passengers used portmanteaus — huge, metal-strapped trunks large enough to throw in everything they might need on a three or six week voyage, plus a good few items they couldn’t even imagine a use for. A portmanteau life is just the same: a mass of dissimilar activities, tasks and responsibilities, thrown together without clear focus.

Too many people suffer from trying to handle portmanteau lives. As a result, they’re overworked, stressed out and always on the run from one activity to another. They’re so busy they exist in a nightmare of firefighting and just-in-time decisions. There’s no focus to what they do. It’s as if they can’t bear to prioritize or exclude anything. Their lives include so much, nothing gets enough time or attention.

Of course, focus isn’t enough by itself. Your life may be tightly focused and have little impact or usefulness. I had a colleague once who was given the job of handling the organization’s relations with the local community. Despite the tight focus, his role had no impact. The business wasn’t interested in the local community’s concerns, and the local people had long ago given up on hopes they could influence the organization’s leaders. Some people focus their lives on areas that are similarly unimportant, even useless, to anyone — including themselves.

At work, “portmanteau” roles have so much overlap with other roles people expend most of their energy in turf wars. Low impact roles are unneeded and hateful. Who wants to do a job they know no one values? If a role comes into both categories, low impact and poor focus, it’s a blind, lame tortoise trying to win a horse race.

To be worth doing, any action need to be part of a clear focus and have measurable impact on what you value most. Activities with little impact should be eliminated. No one will notice they’ve gone. Poorly focused roles, especially portmanteau roles, should be split or have the useless elements removed. One main area of impact, one role. Two areas, two roles. A properly organized role has a clear purpose and a single focus. Anything else is a distraction and a waste of time. Delegate it. Drop it. Forget it. Tightly focused, portfolio roles with clear impact are the only ones worth doing. They’re also the only jobs able people relish, since they provide the best opportunities for interest and achievement.

It’s the same with life in general. Taking on too much, and not discriminating between what you can do and what you should, stops you from accomplishing what matters most. It’s so tempting. There’s so much that needs to be done. Living a portmanteau life will leave you frustrated and exhausted. Find your portfolio: the focus and direction that will allow you to concentrate on activities you enjoy and relish.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Does this task affect anything directly useful to the most important things in my life?
  • Could sombody else do it?
  • Could they do it better?
  • What would happen if I didn’t pick it up?
  • If I focused more clearly, what could I achieve?
  • Can I have more impact? Where? How?

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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