Sooner or later it all devolves to work.
The whole point behind defining purpose, about being clear about what we are trying to accomplish and understanding what our role and expectations are comes down to this. Clarity of meaning means that when faced with the task at hand—when we need to wrestle with the real work of doing work—we approach it with a mindset that allows us to embrace the work going in, sustain ourselves throughout and feel satisfied that we have done our best at the end.
From another perspective, the conscious development of those viewpoints and insights—the shaping of the lens by which we perceive the challenge in front of us—is designed to avoid disappointment. Being clear about what we are doing and why is supposed to help manage and diminish the existential dread of getting started. Knowing why what we do is important is intended to make the monotonous, laborious, aching struggle with how to solve seemingly intractable problems somehow more engaging. Most importantly, it is about making sure we don’t experience regret afterwards. We reduce the possibility that we will look back and know we could have done better, focussed more and delivered a more effective result.
In other words, it’s all a bit of a mind game. We are—quite deliberately—talking ourselves into the state of mind that will help us produce our best work.
There are a couple of important insights here. The first is that our mindset is not constantly engaged and focussed to produce our best work. If we’re really, really honest with ourselves, our mind is naturally quite lazy. It doesn’t want to do the work. It’s looking for an out, any out, that will mean the work can be deferred to another day. Preferably to another week or month. Purpose is, in essence, the argument we use to win over our mind, to coax it out of laziness and to jump start it into useful and meaningful productivity. We should not feel guilty about needing to do that, because it’s normal.
The second part of this, and it’s an important part, is that we need strategies to overcome our inherent inertia. We need the mind games. We need the scripts, the inspirational statements and the sense of meaning. Most importantly, talking ourselves into the right mindset—coaching ourselves to to our best work—needs to be habitual and routine. If we are to regularly engage with the task before us with the energy, focus and perspective that we need to in order to succeed, then we need rituals and habits that get us there. We need to repeatedly tell ourselves the stories that we need to hear, to coax ourselves from our state of indulgent being to a state of engaged doing.
There is a wonderful book about work, disguised as a book about creativity, that illustrates this extremely well. Written by Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit talks about the discipline and effort associated with—in fact, required for—producing truly creative work. She argues that the essence of creativity is a product of doing the work; it is about building the habits and developing the rituals necessary to succeed. Early in the book, she speaks of one of her most important rituals of the day. Every morning, she gets up at 5:30am. She puts on her workout clothes, leaves her apartment, hails a cab and goes to the Pumping Iron gym, where she will work out for the next two hours. The ritual, though, is not getting to the gym. It’s not completing the workout. It’s not about the exercise, the perspiration or the shower afterwards. The ritual, for her, is complete as soon as she steps in the cab and tells the driver where to go. Her ritual is, in essence, “get out of the apartment and start moving.” From there, habit takes over. The rest of the script will unfold.
You might ask: if a talented, world famous choreographer needs the force of habit to resist and overcome the tempting coziness of never leaving bed, then what hope is there for the rest of us? And that entirely depends upon how badly you want the outcome. The greater your sense of purpose, the clearer you are about what you are trying to achieve—and the work that is necessary to achieve it—the more likely you are to overcome inertia and get on with it. In other words, the quality of your work is directly proportional to the quality of your mind game. Or, to put it more politely, the likelihood of our best work showing up depends upon the routines and habits that we develop that in turn influence us showing up and actually getting to work.
Even once the work is started, whatever work that might be, there is resistance to be overcome. We need to keep going, to wrestle with the problem at hand, and to figure out how to solve it. We also need to know what done looks like, and when we have attained a good enough solution to truly be able to call the work done. We need to skate between the twin poles of “just enough to get by” and “obsessively striving for perfection at all costs.”
The interesting reality is that both of those poles have a strong attraction, a magnetic force that exerts their own pressure on what gets done, and how it gets delivered. Getting actual work done means breaking free of the gravitational pull of both of those poles. The pull of the extreme represented by “just enough to get by” is the cognitive laziness that offers trite answers and simple solutions to complex problems. And the force of perfection demands nothing less than results that are exceptional and unassailable, with every ‘i’ dotted and every ’t’ crossed. Both of these are not enablers, though. They are crutches. They are, largely, designed to prevent our best work from ever seeing the light of day.
If I am completely honest—and I am genuinely trying to be—my own approach to work can frequently oscillate between these two poles. Faced with the mountain of a deliverable to be produced, the temptation to do the minimum can be strong. Running into roadblocks or issues, it can be tempting to dismiss the work as impossible or to revert back to simple, safe and readily accepted solutions. It is only once I really dig in with the work, challenging it head on, that I become most engaged. Once there, I can keep going for hours and days. Getting there can take as long or longer. The difficulty is in fostering the discipline to keep going, to work through the early resistance to getting started and to invest in getting past “just enough.” And that is where the mind games come in.
The habits and rituals we develop need to be very personal, very deliberate and very conscious. We need to know the sinkholes and traps we use to distract ourselves. That might mean turning off our phones, shutting down email or abandoning social media. It might mean bargaining with ourselves about the amount of time we are going to commit, or the number of words to be produced. It might involve bribery: solve this problem, and you can have a coffee break, or a cookie, or go and buy yourself a skinny-no-whip-two-pump-extra-foam-vanilla-chai-latte, to the extent that you actually find that appealing. It might mean proferring the reward of a walk, a workout or a glass of wine at the end of the day. Most importantly, though, it’s about building the rituals and habits that get you into your best mindset, that get you off of your mental couch and into your mental office.
This may sound like we need to be bribed in order to do good work. And if that’s what it takes, so be it. More importantly—and more accurately—we need to be motivated to do good work. It has to matter. We have to care. There has to be a deliberate wanting and needing to produce something worthwhile if we are to actually get going. That’s the role of purpose and accomplishment. But we also need to recognize and manage the temptations and distractions that will otherwise derail us. That’s the role of habit and ritual.
Above all, the goals that we set, the standards that we maintain and the habits we form are unique to us. And they have to be. There is an inherent danger in adopting someone else’s standards as our own, although that is a minefield that we navigate constantly. Whether the bar is set so unattainably high that we can never succeed or so low that we can clear it in our sleep, accepting the standards of others is displacing our own sense of accomplishment and achievement. We are surrendering control of our work—and judgement of its worth—to the subjective viewpoint of others. If we do that, we will never know what we are capable of and of how successful or how great we can truly be.
Taking on new work is not without fear. This is particularly true when the work itself is unfamiliar, and we are in part needing to learn and discover how best to proceed. But this is also true when the work is familiar but new insights and outcomes are required. To be clear, this pretty much defines everything done under the general rubric of “knowledge work.”
Whenever we create new outcomes, we are investing what we know, what we understand and what we believe in the solution. Submitting that outcome to the world means we are also submitting ourselves to scrutiny. If we are honest with ourselves, that’s why getting started and doing the work can be so hard; we want the result to be right, to be valued, to be good enough. Avoiding the work and not getting started simply delays the inevitable confrontation, and sets us up for the possibility of failure. Doing just enough to get by may feel like getting away with something, but doing so repeatedly over time simply erodes our own confidence in our skills and our ability to perform. It also—being frank—erodes that confidence of others as to whether we are truly valued performers. And perfection is simply another means of deferring scrutiny by never actually being ready.
Success is a habit. What is most important is developing the habits and rituals that lead to success being possible. We need to develop the strategies, the insights, the messages and the mind games that best motivate us to take action and to keep going. Our habits need to keep front and centre the work that needs to be done, they need need to keep us prepared and in shape to do the work, and they need to keep us mindful of our own standards of success. Deep within ourselves, we know when we are doing our best work. We also know when we are rationalizing and making excuses for sub-standard effort. We need the discipline to remind ourselves of what we are capable of, to keep us focussed on what we care about and to call ourselves on our own excuses.