“What do you do?”
When most of us are asked that question, it’s in the context of our jobs. We think about our profession, or our career, or our title or the position that we hold in an organization (assuming that we have any one of those things). That doesn’t define the whole of who we are, of course, but it’s often what we lead with in terms of our identity.
At the same time, while there are any number of things we might think we should be doing, we frequently find ourselves struggling to get those things done. We may have strategic plans, project plans, work plans, to-do lists, checklists, a desk awash in a sea of post-it notes. Whatever our organizational tool of choice (and sometimes we feel so out of control that we resort to more than one) we often don’t see visible progress on the things that we say are important.
There are days—and sometimes there are whole weeks—where we look back and struggle to remember exactly what we have accomplished. We feel busy, the days seem full, and yet we are unable to identify any one thing that we’ve specifically achieved. We look at our to-do list and it seems to be just as long (or longer) at the end of the week than it did at the beginning.
On one hand, we could consider this outcome a positive: it means that we will never, ever run out of work. At the same time, it can be enormously and endlessly frustrating.
Over the last several months, I have routinely had the very specific and conscious thought, “Once I get through this next period, I’ll have some time to breathe.” Whatever is currently on my plate, once it is done I will have some space and time for other things. I will finally be able to focus on the more important things that I care about, that I feel are being displaced by the urgent reality of today. I will have bandwidth to reflect, to plan, to read, to unwind and to just be. And yet—for a while now—every time I have felt close to being able to stop, something else has transpired that has required me to keep going.
In this context, every day and week feels like a race. The period I am working through begins to feel like a marathon. And yet, if I reflect back, each marathon was just one leg in an on-going endurance run that extends back into the mists of time and the fog of memory.
To a certain extent, this has been a theme for most of my adult life. I have frequently been in the midst of a project (and—more frequently—several projects). Some key milestone—or the looming end of the project itself—defines the next stage to be realized. Within that stage, there are any number of activities to be performed, meetings to be conducted, workshops to be led and deliverables to be produced. There are also any number of other miscellaneous distractions that arise along the way.
It would be easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, inexorably in motion without any perceptual forward progress. That ignores one simple reality: consciously or not, we chose for it to be this way. I chose it to be this way for me. Whether we recognize or acknowledge it, we chose our own reality.
I chose to move into challenging positions that were going to stretch my capabilities and skills. I chose to take on projects that interested and engaged me. I chose to take on multiple projects at the same time, because I cared about the work or I cared about the result—and sometimes I cared about both. I may regret or resent the consequences of my choices at times, but it was still a choice that I made. I chose to work with the customer I will meet with later today. I chose to write this article this morning.
When we are confronted by the things that are in front of us, we need to recognize that we own the circumstances that have led us here. When we lament not having time to do the things we care about, we need to recognize that we are ultimately choosing where we spend our time. If we aren’t doing something we care about, it is presumably because something else is currently more important. If it isn’t more important, then we need to ask ourselves why.
Let’s take a simple example that relates to many of us: reading. Earlier this year I came across several articles on how to read more books over the course of the year (including this one, this one and this one). That may have been the universe’s gentle nudge to remind me that I actually enjoy reading for pleasure on the rare occasions that I do it. It may have simply been a product of the zeitgeist, reflective of a broader frustration with the lack of time many of us feel we have to pick up a book.
Here’s the thing. Reading more isn’t actually a hard or difficult proposition. It is, in fact, really, really simple. If you want to read more, pick up books more often. Choose to take the time to read, rather than doing other things. Austin Kleon, an artist who already reads an epic amount, famously built himself an iPhone home screen that reminded him to go read a book rather than swiping into his phone. It’s a helpful reminder, even though he also admits to ignoring its suggestion more than he would like.
And this is the essential point. If something is important to us, we’ll do it. If we don’t get it done, that might be a really strong suggestion that it wasn’t really important—or that it wasn’t as important as whatever else we were doing instead.
You may, of course, be sitting reading this, silently fuming. You may be thinking, “No! The things I’m not having time to do are really important!” If they are, that’s great. Close the browser right now, and go do them. Please. Take the time it would take you to read the rest of the article, and invest it in getting started on that thing that you really care about doing that you just haven’t done yet. I would genuinely, honestly be thrilled for you if you did just that.
If you’re still here, though, ask yourself this simple question: If the thing—or things—you have in mind are really important, why haven’t you done anything about them? What’s displacing it? What’s getting in the way? Or, alternatively, what’s the important thing that you are focussing on instead?
My own experience is—I hope—illustrative. Yes there are things I want to do more of, and there are projects I want to be investing my time on that I’m not currently focussing on. I’d also, just to acknowledge the point, genuinely like to read more. I’m acutely conscious, however, that other things are taking priority right now.
This year is one of the busiest years in terms of customer projects that I have had this decade. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact, and it’s one I’m endlessly appreciative of. But delivering on those commitments—and doing so well—is a key focus for me. I also have major restoration work being done following a sewage backup, my wife broke her leg three weeks ago and I have a number of other family priorities that will require time and attention in the coming weeks. There are a massive number of demands on my time right now, and pretty much anything that isn’t fundamentally essential simply isn’t going to get my attention.
While I may have chosen the customer work (although it would have been nice if it was spaced out more) I didn’t choose for the rest of it to happen. But what I have chosen is how I have responded to the things that have occurred. I am continuing to strive to do great work for my customers. I am deciding to take the best care of my family that I can. I’m opting to also attend as best as I can to the renovations that are underway. These priorities are currently more important to me than most of the other things that I might be doing. There are many things that are significant to me that I am consciously deferring. Even so, there are commitments and priorities that I DO care about. They happen where and when they can.
This article is a good example of that. I committed to myself—and only to myself—to write and post an article to this web site every week. So far this year, I haven’t missed on that commitment. In the last month or so, however, it has been an open question of whether or not I was going to actually get an article out the door. That was partly a product of focus and partly a factor of time; a lot of it was simply a question of having the energy to write and clarity on what I wanted to say.
Despite that, articles have appeared. Or, more importantly, I have carved out the space to still write articles. Where, when and how has not been predictable. They have not been published on the same day of every week. But they have gotten done. Right now is a good example. I began writing this article at a highway rest stop near my customer’s offices at 6:45 in the morning. My first meeting is in at 8:30. I woke up at 5:00 this morning, and recognized I had a choice: I could pretend to sleep for an hour—and fail to do so—or I could get up and get moving. The fact that you are reading this now tells you what the answer was.
Writing is important to me. It’s something that I enjoy. It helps me to reflect and connect. It is my opportunity to work through things for myself, as well as to share my perspective with others. I’m grateful and appreciative that there is an audience (that would be you) that has chosen to follow my work and have an interest in what I have to say. And having created an expectation of writing regularly—through nothing more than doing so—following through on that expectation is something that is very important to me.
Actually getting the opportunity to write though, isn’t about carving the perfect space at the perfect time to produce the perfect article. It is instead quite literally finding confluence between a small gap in time, having something to say and mustering the energy to say it. That’s not heroics. It’s about doing what I care about doing, and caring enough to do it when I have the bandwidth to get it done.
What we do is a choice. The things we actually get done simply define and demonstrate what our choices were. If something is genuinely important, we’ll somehow find the time necessary to get it done. I wanted to say ‘make the time’ there, but that’s not actually how it works. Time is finite, and we only have so much of it to work with. What we are doing is choosing how we spend that time and where we invest our energy. Where we focus our attentions is the most direct demonstration of what is actually important to us.
That’s an important realization, though. Sometimes we perceive a disconnect between what we think our priorities are and what we are actually doing. That’s why some of us (and somedays that includes me) might find some of this message frustrating. If we are not doing something we think is important—or we are spending time on things we say are not our highest priorities—there may well be a message that is worth paying attention to. We may genuinely not be clear about what our priorities are. Or, alternatively, we may simply not be being honest with ourselves about what our priorities actually are.
If something is truly important to you, then my best advice to you is simply to get on with it. Get started when you can and where you can, and once you have started keep going. Stop waiting for the right time; there is a very real likelihood that time will never come. As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans.” It’s the doing now that matters, not the planning for what we might do later.