How To Clear The Clutter And Get To The Goals That Matter
It's tempting to live as though life will go on forever. When goals are our sole focus we forget to appreciate each and every moment. The hourglass gives us a false sense of time, in that each grain of sand will drop one by one and we'll always know how much time we have left. In reality, life spills through our fingers like sand from a smashed hourglass. It's why we're willing to put off calling our Mom, or quick to cancel on a friend because we had a long day at work. We're willing to sacrifice now for some distant fantasy future where we have time to do all the things we want. You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want. The days can be long, but the decades are blurs.
In building a business, I've struggled with priorities like every entrepreneur does. Life and business become a melting pot where you can't tell one from the other. It's not uncommon to get swept away by my business. And it's not until the tide brings me back that I realize I went an entire week without doing one thing for myself. I forget to acknowledge that I am not my business. The priorities of my business are not always going to be in line with what I need in the moment.
It's like racehorse trainers using blinders to keep horses focused on what is in front. They want them to pay attention to the race rather than distractions such as crowds. But when you're an entrepreneur there is no end to your race. The most important things in life get ignored because they feel like distractions.
Yesterday, I saw a man on the verge of death. Beside my garage runs a fence with a skateboard-wide path that leads to an alley. Big beautiful trees sprout a canopy of shade over the path. I go up and down the path five to six times a day to walk the dog, write at a coffee shop or head off to meet a client. It's usually empty.
But today a man occupied the space in front of me, sprawled flat out. He had a big trench coat shoved under his left ear. It was hard to make out the colour of the coat because it was drenched in blood. He lifted his head as I approached. I asked, "Are you okay!?" As he looked up, blood drained from his head, like someone was pouring a glass of red wine into the ground. My hand shot into my pocket and I dialed 911. I talked with this man, who turned out to be 69, and I did my best to comfort him and contain the bleeding until the police arrived. I'll save you the details of the wounds, but they were dramatic. It’s still unclear what happened to him. But it felt like I was looking through the lens of a Tarantino flick.
I pretty much immediately went back to the computer and started working again. I didn't decompress. I didn't talk to anyone besides the cop who took my statement. I went back to work and thought about what I wanted to finish for the next day before going away for the weekend. It wasn't until later in the afternoon when I took a walk and started to think about how fucked up it was to see that. My mind was slow to unsnarl the day and piece together what I’d seen.
In Buddhism, they say every moment serves a purpose. The main idea is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path. In Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart she poses a provoking thought: "We can meet our match with a poodle or with a raging guard dog, but the interesting question is - what happens next?"
Chodron goes on to say, "feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we're holding back." Chodron describes them as being messengers that show us, with sometimes terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.
Seeing that man helpless in the pathway was a scream-in-your-face signal to be present. Pretending like I could just go on with my day was a sad attempt to downplay my own fear of death. If that was me, did you live the life you want? Are you making time for the things you say are important to you? And what are you doing each day to get the most out of each of these? Are you doing what's *urgent* (answering e-mails, texts, phone, running errands, etc.) or investing yourself in what's truly important in life?
Multi New York Times bestselling author Ryan Holiday helped me re-frame my beliefs on death in a way that can serve to empower you as well. "Meditating on your mortality is only depressing if you miss the point. It is in fact a tool to create priority and meaning. It’s a tool that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a gift and not waste it on the trivial and vain. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. And fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this. A simple reminder can bring us closer to living the life we want. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many things you have left to be done, a car can hit you in an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. That’s it. It could all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon."
That's why last week we took the time to stop the torture of endless decisions and chart a path for creative freedom. Were you able to pull together a list of goals that are meaningful to you? If you're like most people, you're starting to see why you feel stressed out. You have too many damn goals floating around in your head. And if you're trying to maneuver five hula hoops without even being able to keep up one, you're setting yourself up for failure.
The first thing to acknowledge is a thought shared by author and consultant Jim Collins who has spent more than 25 years of rigorous research into answering the question of what makes great companies tick. Collins saw that where most businesses and people fail is when they take on too much. He put it bluntly, "If you have more than three priorities, you don't have any."
And if you're looking at accomplishing a meaningful goal over the next 90 days, a narrowed focus is what gives you the ability to create impact. This is reiterated by Warren Buffett who says, "The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything."
If you are to treat your time as a gift and live the life you want, what goals serve a purpose in who you want to become? As you look over your list and scan the goals you've written down, how many of them burn with a sense of priority and meaning?
What goals are you unwilling to leave to chance?
What were my goals at the beginning of this year?
Are my goals the same—or have things changed?
Is there something I’ve been doing lately—like a writing project, a business project, or any kind of project or commitment—that’s not feeling “right” anymore? Do I need to keep doing it? What would happen if I just stopped?
What’s something I’m sick of hearing myself say, over and over? Like, “I really need to start…” “I really need to stop…” “Seriously, for real, this week I will…”
What’s something I definitely want to create, achieve, or experience before the end of this year?
Writing is one tool that has helped me gain clarity into deciding what's important in my life. It's like having a secret tree fort where I can escape for a few hours each week. And over time it's helped me narrow in on my priorities.
Answer the above questions with your list of goals by your side. This gives you the ability to be present with what you've decided is important. You can't work on all of them. But if you were to narrow it down to 1-2 goals, which ones would have the greatest impact in your life?
Reflection can be useful, but don't spend too much time thinking about your projects after you commit. Simply be present, again and again, moment to moment. There's a reason you're only committing to 90 days, because it gives you a chance to pivot and reflect at a set time. If you pull the lid off your crock pot every 10 minutes to check on your roast, you let all the steam escape. And it's like starting all over again. Ninety days gives you enough time to cook something delicious.
Regardless of what you're working towards, nourishment must be a priority. Life will have plenty of soft cuddly poodles, but life will also serve up its share of raging guard dogs. For you to answer what's next with a sense of confidence, you need to take care of yourself.
Life is a garden where every day you have to maintain and work with intention so you can reap the rewards. The reward is the power of consistency. Little things done daily lead to huge changes in your life. You can't help but believe that you're capable of accomplishing anything when you taste a bit each day.
Do you have a mind that won't quit chasing squirrels up trees? Here are two bonus ideas that will help.
All those other goals on your list? The world's most successful investor Warren Buffett says everything else is now your DO NOT DO list. Like an avoid-at-all-cost list until your 90 days is up.
That said, I still find it useful to capture ideas, but now they get a chance to slow cook in the crock pot. I use Evernote, but you could just as easily use Google Docs. For example, I have plans to put a work-at-your-own-pace program together, but I haven't deemed it a priority to focus on right now. Rather than plug my ears and scream out nonsense like a 5 year old ignoring his parents, I'll fire up Evernote. I throw my thoughts in a note and move on with my day.
I treat each of these little additions like a missing ingredient. Maybe it needs a pinch of salt, or a sprinkle of turmeric to give it the flavour I'm going for. But I can't tell unless I let it cook. I don't fully know what I'm cooking until I decide what I'm having for dinner. Once I choose the next project to focus on, I have more than enough ingredients. It's a matter of eliminating the filler that ruins the recipe.