Clarity of purpose is a valuable commodity. It can also be an elusive one. Even when you know how it’s done—when you actually teach others how to get clear on what you are doing and where you are going—it is easy to get overwhelmed, sidetracked and ultimately derailed. The past couple of weeks have been a case in point, and a case study.
I actually started 2021 with what seemed to be a clear sense of my immediate priorities. In December, I had wrapped up the pilot of my Strategy Making workshop, an experience that was even more positive than I had dreamed. I needed to spend time working on transforming the pilot workshop into something permanent. Building on the experience of the pilot program, the next challenge is to keep what is working, expand it, and make on-going delivery a sustainable proposition.
I also need to spend some time working on getting my post-pandemic consulting life in order. As I’ve mentioned, my consulting work pretty much fell off a cliff with the start of the pandemic. As a consultant, my focus is on helping my clients move forward proactively with intention. The current economic climate is far more one of reaction and crisis response. While I can’t control the reality of that, I can do something to prepare for when it is over.
Much of that preparation starts with rethinking the first interactions that I have with clients: my web sites, my proposals and my responses to competitive procurements. While I have had a good track record at proposals in the past, some of the work that I do has changed, client expectations have shifted and the rest of the competitive landscape has upped its game. I have also gotten far clearer about the work that I am good at and like to do, where I provide the most value and the clients who value the kind of work that I do.
I quickly found myself with a long list of relatively high-priority projects. Reviewing the results of the pilot workshop, planning for the development of an updated curriculum, figuring out an on-going business model, creating the update and managing a launch campaign. Revising two web sites. Overhauling surrounding communications, including my mail platform, social media accounts and on-going marketing strategy. Updating proposal structure and templates, and developing new marketing content. The more I thought about it, the longer the list grew, and the more overwhelming it all became.
While all of the work is attached to two clear priorities, both of which are an essential focus for me, there is a great deal of work around each of those priorities to be done. Both have a level of urgency, in that I have both a personal desire and financial requirement to be more actively engaged than I am currently. There are also uncertainties around how to proceed with each, requiring research, thought and experimentation. Right now, it is entirely unclear which path is more likely to bear fruit sooner.
Everything on my rapidly growing list is relatively manageable in size in isolation. Most of the activities are somewhere in the ballpark of a couple of weeks to complete. Compiled, though, the list is an overwhelming amount of work that could easily consume several months. A rising tension between doing the work well and getting it done hasn’t made things any easier.
While the particulars might vary, the challenges—and the anxieties—of what I have outlined will be familiar to many. When we think of what we want to do, what we can do, what we should do and what we aspire to do, we often wind up with long, undifferentiated lists of work that all seems incredibly important and meaningful. The longer the lists become, the more debilitating they are, and the less likely that anything is going to come of them. Like tires on an icy road, we spin our wheels hoping for traction that never comes.
If we keep the list as a list, the best case scenario is that we make minimal progress forward on too many fronts. The more likely scenario is that we get overwhelmed with inertia. The longer things take, the more formidable they become. As overwhelm grows, the finish line feels further away and the perceived effort to reach it grows exponentially. Small things become perceptually massive surprisingly quickly. Everything seems harder, more complicated, more intricate and more interwoven.
The pivotal word in that last paragraph is “perceptually.” The work is no bigger or smaller than we started (unless we severally miscalculated the scope of our ambitions). But the longer we spend working towards something—or worse, putting it off—the more daunting it appears. Getting traction—even a little bit of forward progress, where we accomplish one thing—can help reset perspectives. Perception is reality, so getting to manageable starts with recalibrating our sense of the work and what is required.
Getting control of priorities in the face of overwhelming opportunity is possible. It requires clarity, it requires focus and it requires some work. It also involves commitment, fortitude and the making of specific, conscious choices. If what I’ve described above in any way resonates with you, though, there are strategies you can employ to begin to clarify what is most pressing and get control of your perceptions. The following steps are a pathway towards making your immediate priorities clear:
- Capture everything that you think you need to do. The first part of making sense of what is a priority is developing as complete a list of opportunities as you can. This can feel like it is just a gateway to the same degree of overwhelm you are trying to avoid, but there is method to the madness. You need to know that you have outinedeverything that you care about, whether you are moving forward on it or not. You need a place where you can choose what you will do, and let go of what you are deferring. The list is always there, and you can add to it as new ideas and opportunities emerge. Knowing the list exists means you don’t need to keep worrying about it.
- Be clear about what is important. This involves moving past the list, and thinking about the outcomes you care most about realizing. You need clarity around what the real results that you care about look like. What are the essential areas that you need to make progress in? What does that progress look like? In particular, identify what represents a meaningful shift forward from your current reality that will make a tangible difference.
- Define what is next in moving forward. This is where clarity starts to really emerge. Even when you are clear on what is important, there may be multiple—even dozens—of things on your priority list related to that outcome. Get specific about what the next action is, based on where you are now and where you are trying to go. While this is a nod to Getting Things Done, it is on a slightly different scale. This isn’t the next task to move forward on a project; it’s the next project to move forward on a goal. Out of the overall opportunities, what are the one, two or three things that you can start now that will make the most difference for you?
- Give yourself the time to tackle what is next. Whatever your short-list of immediate next actions are, they will require work and effort. Be realistic about what that work is, where it fits and what it will take. You may have other urgent work commitments that you need to respond to. You will have personal and family expectations that need to be addressed. What is the effort that will be required to deliver results, and do them well? What is the time that is necessary to make that effort available, given everything else that you have going on? Give yourself a reasonable timeline to make progress on your priority next items.
- Put the remainder of the list aside. This is perhaps the hardest step. For everything on the list that does not represent your immediate next activity, give yourself permission to ignore it. Keep the list. Add to it, as new ideas come to you, so you don’t forget or lose sight of them. And apart from that, leave the list alone. Don’t keep looking at it. Don’t try to move forward on anything else. Don’t try to knock a few other actions off in your spare time. Put it away, trusting that you can come back to it later, and focus your time and attention on the specific actions you have committed to move forward now.
In large part, this is the process that got me to clarity on where I am, and what I am focusing on today. For all the actions that I identified and opportunities I want to pursue, there are a select few that represent the immediate next things I have to get done. While there are other things I want to get done, I have had to be realistic about what can be accomplished and what is more than wishful thinking.
I have a clear game plan for the coming weeks. I know the work that I need to deliver, and I’m relatively comfortable that I have the bandwidth to get it done. While I have other dreams and ambitions of what I would like to accomplish, trying to tackle them now would be a recipe for stressful mediocrity, rather than focussed excellence. I have for the moment put them aside. They are still important, I still care about them, and I would like to see them come to fruition, but now is not the time.
The strategy that emerges from the coming period will shape what happens beyond. In the meantime, my list of future opportunities will inevitably continue to grow. I am working to be comfortable with that. For the ambitious, the list of what you want to do and what you could do will always be larger and longer than you have capacity to deliver. Accepting that is the first step towards not just a sane workload, but also realizing better results.
The more that priorities become clear, the more capacity exists to focus. That focus is what enables investment in producing results that matter. The goal is not building a smaller list so that we can tick the boxes faster and say we are done. We are amplifying the time and attention that we can invest, so that the results we do deliver—while fewer—better meet the mark and deliver on our ambitions and expectations. We are making sure that we are able deliver on the promise that makes doing the work worthwhile. We are investing in our ability to do work that we care about, that we can be proud of and that delivers the results we know we are capable of producing.
Focus. Intention. Purpose. Get clear about those factors, and all of the other priorities fall into place.