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Anil John

How to Work on the Wildly Important while Walking in a Windstorm

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I went from conflating activity and productivity to understanding that time is a finite resource best spent on the disciplined pursuit of the wildly important. It is simple, but not easy. I'll tell you the habits that are working for me and provide pointers to resources I found helpful on this journey so you don't have to waste your time.

How to Work on the Wildly Important while Walking in a Windstorm

Focus is the super-power needed to succeed in the current knowledge environment. Yet, we are on the losing end of an asymmetrical war for the attention needed to succeed at a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Our well-resourced opponents in this battle range from our own lack of clarity on success and fulfillment to external distractions that are in the business of convincing us that superficial connection can enable deep and meaningful relationships.

My own journey in finding effective defenses involved everything from resigning from my last job to taking a half year sabbatical that included hiking the legendary Tour du Mont Blanc, the long distance alpine trek circumnavigating the highest peak in the Alps while crossing on foot the borders of Switzerland, France and Italy.

My simple but key insight to finding my own path on this journey was to understand and accept at an emotional and not just intellectual level that time is the one finite, non-renewable resource from which everything else flows.

While simple, the hard part of this insight is two-fold:

  1. Intellectual understanding does not automatically translate to emotional understanding
  2. Implementing the habits and tactics to convert this awareness to action takes self-awareness and hard work

What I discovered in my journey is that without an emotional understanding of the value of time, you end up mechanically following other people's recommendations of practices that may or may not apply in your unique personal and professional context.

So what I will provide below for both personal and professional contexts are the readings and resources that helped me bridge the gap between intellectual and emotional understanding.

In each case I will also share some of my tactics and habits. It is important to understand these are only examples - they are contextually relevant to me and may not work for you. You need to do the work to figure out what will work for you.

Personal

A starting point here is to figure out what is important to you when facing the constant bombardment to do more which results in taking on more than you can handle. Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, provides a good framework for choosing between the "trivial many” and the “vital few”.

I would follow that up with Cal Newport's new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which argues "deep work (focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task) is becoming more valuable in our economy at the same time that it’s becoming more rare."

Ultimately, you will need to develop and put into place prioritization filters, that are deeply personal and contextual, to help you decide how to parcel out the finite number of hours available in a day or a week.

Some of the tactics and habits that I have put into place in this area are:

  • I no longer watch network television, and get my news on a weekly basis from alternate long form reading
  • I go to bed before 9 p.m. in order to ensure that I get a full night's sleep
  • I do something active every day
  • I have significantly curtailed, and in some cases eliminated, my use of social media
  • I prioritize deep and meaningful conversations with smart, creative people who challenge conventional thinking

BTW, you might question why I still blog if I am minimizing social media. The answer is that I find the process of long form writing "... forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related". In short, I continue to write because it helps me think more clearly.

Professional

Within a professional context, you need to make sound decisions to execute strategies that deliver value to the organization. A good starting point for avoiding cognitive decision making biases is the Heath Brothers' book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

Delivering value requires you to understand the difference between Strategy ("what do I do?") and Execution ("how do I do it?"). Far too much emphasis is paid to the former to the detriment of the latter. A great resource to help you on this topic is The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals.

Delivering value is not a one time occurrence but something that needs to be done on a regular, incremental basis while constraining risk. An effective tactic to ensure this is to fix the budget for time and resources while flexing the scope of work. This philosophy as applied to the modern context is well articulated in Eric Ries' book, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

Some of the tactics and habits that I have put into place in this area are:

  • Allocating specific times for deep work and batching work to avoid context switching
  • Consciously allocating time to various aspects of the job
  • Standardizing and automating recurring processes
  • Fixing duration and resource commitments associated with projects to mitigate risk and scope creep while delivering incremental value
  • Consciously making time to interact with people outside the usual circles to ensure exposure to diversity of thoughts and opinions

We are all driven to find meaning and purpose in our lives in both personal and professional contexts. To achieve the wildly important goals we set for ourselves, we need to put into place habits and tactics driven by the ultimate constraint that is the amount of time we have available to us.

Simple to say, hard to do, but well worth it!

Enjoy your journey!

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This blog post first appeared on Anil John | Blog (https://blog.aniljohn.com). The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer’s view in any way.

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