The Why of Things

I’ve heard it said that when you know the Why of your goals the who, what, when, and where will follow.  But how to find that Why?

Perhaps some people go in to each task with a crystal clear vision but that has never been the case with me.  Rather than reflect too much on things I  default towards Action, then be guided by the results.

Take this website for example.  I had some ideas of the Why when I chose to commit to publishing a new article every week this year but by no means was there a crystal clear vision of a guiding Why that I would be led by.  Instead, there was a loosely grouped bunch of reasons, or more accurately a general gut feeling of what I wanted to accomplish.  These were, in no particular order:

  • Improve my writing
  • Adhere to a publishing schedule
  • Clarify how I feel on various subjects
  • Build a platform from which to launch a book
  • Improve my human interactions by studying communication

Looking back I can see that only some of these truly apply, while others are not as important to me after all.  Improving my writing, completing a long-term obligation, and digging deeper into ideas that I care about have been the driving force.  Platform building has definitely not.  While there are many online entrepreneurs that I admire I now realize that I do not aspire to be one.  Had that truly been my Why I would spend far more time on that aspect, but I just can’t bring myself to apply much effort there.

The point is that I started with the What; publish an article every week.  The exercise is one in consistency and I have reaped great personal benefits from it.  The Why of it all has developed and become clear over time, and will probably continue to evolve.

Having a strong Why is important, but not as important as action.  Without action there won’t be failures, and without failures you won’t learn and grow.  The more you do, the faster you come to your limits, and the more opportunities you’ll have to learn and adapt.  We don’t learn much about ourselves while maintaining the status quo.  We learn the lessons when we are challenged.

If you have a Why, great.  But don’t let that stop you from getting started.


The High Cost of Opportunity

We have near limitless opportunities available to us these days.  The internet has given us the opportunity to communicate with people we would otherwise never have access to, opportunities to learn anything we set our minds to, and opportunities to have a voice and be heard.

But being spoiled for choice isn’t always a good thing.  Analysis paralysis and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) are common.  People either do nothing due to indecision, or try to do it all and fail due to lack of commitment.  The hard truth is that we are limited in both time and attention and can only do so much.  While I am confident in my capacity for work I also understand the limits of my time and energy, which forces me to think on and choose those activities and projects that give the highest ROTI (Return on Time Invested).

A Recent Example

A new opportunity came across my desk last week; or rather, through my inbox.  An industry organization of which I am a member put out a call for a new Editor to take over the bi-monthly magazine.  It is a three-year commitment and is a volunteer position.

What an opportunity!

Think about how much could be learned about the publishing industry in three years, which is a perfect amount of time for a long-term project incidentally.  For a writer, it offers a chance to collaborate with others and the opportunity to steer that publication towards a larger vision.  A successful tenure would also look great on a resume and create the potential to transition into that role at another publication in the future; a position that normally requires a bachelor’s degree in communication or journalism, followed by a long slog upwards starting from the copy room.

Now consider the cost.

A commitment like this is a big deal.  You must deliver on schedule, requiring work each day.  This commitment of time, our one true resource, means less time available for other activities.  And the length of the commitment means that, by saying Yes, you are effectively saying No to any number of opportunities in the future.  Those opportunities may be better than this one or worse; there is no way of knowing.  Saying yes now closes the door to many of those opportunities, but would open the door for others in the future.

Every Yes Equals 1,000 No’s

Opportunities are like doors; each one you accept opens new doors to pass through.  But it closes others that were once open as well.  So how do you choose which to grab and commit to?

I mentioned Return on Time Invested (ROTI) earlier.  What value will we receive for our efforts when this task is complete?  Will suffering through night school to achieve an MBA help us gain the position we strive for?  Will it move us closer to our long-term goals?

The first step is to sit down and ask yourself these questions before jumping in with both feet.  Then, if possible, test the waters with a shorter-term project to see if it is going to be a good fit for you.  I did just that last year when I tried out some further education online.  Before the class was finished I had realized that it was not the path for me and happily dropped out of college.  That decision closed whatever doors that would have become available had I finished, but reopened doors that would present themselves in the future.  Doors such as a potential editorial position at a magazine that would have not been possible if still in the midst of that previous opportunity.

Choose Wisely, Then Commit

Saying yes is easy.  Committing is the hard part.  We tend to focus on the end result that the opportunity will bring, while forgetting about the daily grind that will be required to get from here to there.  But if you never commit to anything how will you learn what you are capable of?

Think twice before passing through the door.  Consider whether that commitment will move you closer to your goals, and that it lines up with your values.  Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

And remember that sometimes you don’t get to choose the opportunity.  Sometimes the opportunity chooses you.  All you can do in these cases is decide whether to throw your hat in the ring.  Just be prepared to commit to the opportunity should fate select you.

Treading Water

Does it ever feel like no matter how hard you work that you are barely keeping your head above water?  That you never get everything done that you wanted to and are just barely keeping ahead of your obligations?

No matter if you are a stay-at-home Mom raising three kids, a work-away Dad trying to support his family, or college student trying to make the grade, we’ve all been there.

This is what you do about it.

Step 1 – Breathe

There is no situation that can’t be improved by taking a few deep breaths.  When it feels like things are coming too fast to handle or that you are frantically putting out fires, stop and slow things down with a few slow breaths.

I learned a technique called Box Breathing in The Way of the Seal by Mark Devine.  The technique is to breathe in slowly for a count of five, hold for five, breathe out for five, hold for five, and repeat five times.

This slows your heart, calms your mind and oxygenates your brain.  All requisites to calm decision making.

Seriously.  Breathe.

Step 2 – Make a List

This encapsulates the problem and puts everything into perspective so you can come up with a plan of action.  If you keep all the niggling little tasks running around inside your brain you expend an unnecessary amount of brain power just trying to hold onto it all.

Write them down.  All of it.  I call this a Brain Dump.  Get anything and everything that is on your mind down on paper.  Don’t make judgments, just write.  I’ll typically do this in four columns; one for call to make, another for emails to send, one for work tasks and another for personal.

You will likely have tasks floating around in your head that are really wish-list items.  Things like “write a play” or “build a canoe”.  Unless you are a canoe builder these probably don’t have much relevance to your life at this exact moment, so put then on a separate list called Maybe or Someday.

Step 3 – Quick Attack

This (and the preceding step) are taken directly from Getting Things Done by David Allen.  Start at the top and when you see a job that can be done in two minutes or less, stop and do it.  Cross it off and continue down the list.

Caveat!  Calls and emails are not included in this step.  Those columns are to be considered a single task each; this is task batching at its finest.

Choose those fast jobs that require you to get up and do something.  You’ve been sitting down too long at this point and need to work in some movement.

Step 4 – The Four D’s

You should now have a reasonably focused, pared down list.  What remains is a proper list of items that may, or may not, require action.

I’ve written about this previously, but there are only four ways to deal with any task:

  1. Do it
  2. Delegate it
  3. Defer it
  4. Ditch it

Go through your list using this filter.  Personally, I use a little symbol code that I picked up and expanded on from my use of Bullet Journaling.  If I’m going to do it I make a little dot to the left of the task.  Delegate, draw a right-hand arrow towards it, like the Enter key on your keyboard.  To defer I draw an arrow pointing at it.  And to ditch it I just draw a line through the whole thing.

Not sure whether you should ditch something?  Just ditch it.  Your indecision has already made the decision.

  1. Prioritize and Execute

Now you have a happy little task plan with a concrete list of important tasks that need doing.  Now all that is left is to pick one and focus on it through to completion.

Dwight Eisenhower came up with a great method for determining priorities, known as the Eisenhower Box.  It runs tasks through the filter of what is important, what is urgent, or both.

What is important may be urgent, but what is urgent is rarely important.

Have a paper due in the morning that could make or break your career?  That is important and it is urgent.  Focus on that.  Prioritize your most important, time-sensitive tasks, then focus on them one at a time through to completion.  Working in this fashion allows you to complete things with greater speed and higher quality than if you allow yourself to be distracted by minutia (email anyone?) and jump back and forth between no-consequence tasks.

Long Term Solutions

Now that your head is firmly above water it is important to keep it there.  The five previous steps can now be repeated indefinitely and take very little time to manage once the system is in place, but there are other tactics to consider if you want to avoid that sinking feeling in the future.

Start With No

This one is simple and hard at the same time.  Don’t say yes to every request that comes through your door.  Reducing your overall number of obligations is the easiest way to ensure you have more time for what really matters to you.  Embrace only what is wildly important.

I learned this lesson from a Captain I sailed with at sea years ago.  He would say no to almost any request that came through his door.  Later he told me that you can always reconsider that answer once you’ve had some time to think about it, and you would appear gracious when doing so.  But it is not so easy to change a yes to a no, as it makes you look like a prick.

Start with no.  You can always change your mind later once you are certain that the benefit is worth the additional workload.

Designated Days

Often it is the little life tasks that sap our energy the most.  Trying to get a dissertation done but that porch light needs changing and the car needs an oil change.

This is just another form of task chunking, but it can be helpful to designate your Saturdays to working on nothing but those tasks.  Put away your other works one day each week to close out those personal items, thereby clearing the path for the following week.

Then on the next day – rest.  Reduce your obligations to the bare minimum each Sunday so you can recharge for the coming week.  Focus on reading a book and cooking a nice meal, and not much else.  Your body, family, and sanity will thank you.

Stay Healthy

Eat right, prioritize daily exercise, and get enough sleep.  Strong routines enable this.  Your body needs to be able to physically carry your mental load.

Staying healthy mentally is a matter of personal satisfaction I have found.  Journaling helps with this, as it lets you clear the cobwebs each day and shines a light on dark thoughts which, when considered in the open, are usually not so bad at all.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, start with just three lines:

  1. A summary of what you did the day before and how you felt in retrospect
  2. A sentence on what you plan to accomplish today
  3. And something simple that you are grateful for

This works wonders in helping prioritize your day and starting off strong.

Get It Done

With our new always-on culture it is easy to think you need to keep hammering down on everything everyday. But by implementing these strategies, and applying dedicated focus to your work during the workweek, you will be able to accomplish everything you need to do and then some.  The key is to come at it with a plan so that you are managing your obligations efficiently, rather than having them manage you.

What do you do to get back on track when feeling overwhelmed?