Americans are passionate consumers and acquirers of things. The Los Angeles Times once reported that our homes contain an average of 300,000 items! At the same time, we are fascinated with getting rid of our stuff. The book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, written by Japanese home organization expert Marie Kondo, is a global best seller. Apparently, 4 million of us want help eliminating the objects in our lives that do not, as the book says, “spark joy.” This speaks volumes about our consumer culture, but it also reveals an underlying obsession with cyclical change: We purge the old to bring in the new. And we are hungry for expert advice about how to pull it off.
As consultants, we advise our clients in professional services to consider “firing” the bottom 10 to 15 percent of their clients every two years. That’s because although many of these clients made sense at a different point in their growth and our own, they no longer provide support or are even profitable. In the corporate world as well, we advise that our clients triage their customers, so that the most attention can be paid to and the highest investment made in the most loyal and highest potential customers.
We would never advise abandoning all customers! And we don’t advise you to abandon all habits. But some relationships are holding you back, and some people are taking advantage. Which relationships should you continue to develop, and which should you gently let go? In business, we recommend that customers be referred elsewhere (fired) when they:
1. Are problem-prone and complain about trivial matters.
2. Don’t present any more potential business.
3. Don’t refer business.
4. Are no longer profitable.
5. Are engaged in unethical or questionable activities.
6. No longer match your mission statement and values.
Of course we don’t recommend that you jilt longstanding clients or old friends simply because they aren’t your style anymore. Many of our successful clients have outpaced their peers in income and social status. The happiest among them know how to maintain old relationships without awkwardness. They gain more respect, not less, by keeping their old connections.
When we talk about relationships to eliminate, we are talking about relationships that are consistently, poisonously negative, and are extremely unlikely to change. This category includes people who regularly belittle us, people consumed by addiction, or people who make dangerous ethical lapses that could compromise our livelihoods. It also represents relationships with groups that are bringing us down. We suggest dropping memberships in organizations that are downers, meant only for commiseration and cementing a sense of victimhood. We also suggest avoiding negative or depressing publications. If quitting them cold turkey is hard to do, realize that you can achieve just about the same effect by drastically restricting your time with them in frequency, duration, and intensity.
In professional settings, it’s not terribly hard to cut ties with people or groups who are bringing us down. Eliminating a long-term, personal relationship is much harder, of course. Sometimes it isn’t even possible.
We sometimes must accept coworkers who complain or lash out. Perhaps the person comes with the job. Many people love their work so much that they’ll accept a boss who does this. (Yet if you don’t love your work, that’s a futile tactic.) It’s almost impossible to ignore a hovering mother or domineering father (or vice versa).
Unless we decide we’re going to cut them off forever, we have to find a way to accept the feuds at family gatherings—or the other trouble they tend to cause. We can anticipate these dynamics, prepare for them, and be at peace in our tolerance of them. If we don’t accept the things we can’t change, we’ll forever be stressed and unhealthy.
Eliminating relationships from our lives isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a cut-and-dry task. We suggest doing it gradually and in most cases not stopping abruptly. Here are some questions to consider as you attempt to eliminate certain relationships:
1. What life do I envision for myself a year from now? Is this relationship helpful or hurtful to that vision?
2. If I had the chance, with whom would I like to meet and develop a relationship? Is this relationship hindering progress in that direction?
3. With regards to this relationship, what am I accepting as a necessary evil or as an obligation I impose on myself?
4. And, finally, when it comes to making decisions about keeping or eliminating this relationship, am I using my own metrics for progress and success or someone else’s?
Life is good. Marshall.