priorities

What's In Your Backpack

This article originally appeared on my first blog, The Simpler Life, sometime in 2009. It has been updated and revised to be included on TheWorkologist.com.

In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney's character is a motivational speaker that often gives a talk called, "What's In Your Backpack?" He talks about how each of us is carrying around a metaphorical backpack that contains all of our possessions and commitments. Our backpacks get heavier and heavier until they are so filled with "stuff" that it is nearly impossible to move. George Clooney's character argues that we should "set our backpacks on fire" and free ourselves from this burden. In terms of relationships, he makes the same argument but thankfully gives us permission to not set our backpacks full of family members, friends, and significant others on fire. Much like our backpack full of our possessions, our bag-o-relationships weighs us down and prevents us from being truly free and we should just walk away from it.

Up to a certain point, I was nodding right along with the talk as it was being given. I agree that we all carry around a metaphysical backpack with everything that weighs us down. Our possessions, commitments, relationships, responsibilities and our own goals overflow our backpacks until many of us have no chance of ever being able to move again. However, the point where I differ in philosophy from the movie is what we should do with our backpacks.

In my quest for simplicity and well-being, I am methodically removing everything from my backpack and asking myself if it is truly something I need to be carrying with me. In terms of physical items, this is why I am committed to living a more minimalist lifestyle with less, yet higher quality, possessions. I do not need the extra weight of a large wardrobe or a room full of video games. Most importantly, everything I decide to keep in my backpack is something I have consciously decided to keep around. I think many people have no idea what is in their backpack and yet wonder why it is so heavy.

In terms of relationships, I do not accept the philosophy of Clooney's character. He lives a life completely devoid of personal relationships because he thinks they tie him down. I prefer to fill my backpack with relationships that I care about-- to honestly ask myself what role they should play in my life. I'm not afraid to let friendships fizzle out that no longer make sense in maintaining. At the same time, I am fiercely committed to those relationships I deem worthwhile and important. I take the same approach to my relationships that I do my physical possessions; if I love it and it makes sense to keep, than I make it a point to cultivate it. If it is no longer important to me, then I let it go.

Think about the backpack you are carrying around every day. Have you consciously allowed everything you are carrying around to enter your life? If not, you might want to take a moment to stop, empty your backpack, and make some decisions about what you are going to put back in before you continue slowly killing yourself under the weight.

Making Footprints

This article originally appeared on my first website, The Simpler Life. I'm reintroducing some of the articles that didn't make the initial transition to TheWorkologist.com.

The Grand Canyon was created over thousands of years of gradual erosion. Mountains are created as gigantic and slow tectonic plates bump together. How many of us are trying to create majestic canyons and towering mountains in our lives with one herculean effort? How many changes in diet are left by the wayside after they fail to erase a lifetime of poor eating habits? How many half finished novels lie in drawers and the depths of our hard drives because writing a book ended up being more than a single burst of motivation could handle?

The concept of repeated effort and diligent practice was brought to my attention again after reading about Hua Chi, a 70 year-old Buddhist monk in Tongren, China. He has been praying at the same spot in his temple for so long and consistently that he has worn his footprints into the hardwood floor.

Consistency. Dedication. These are the words that will wear through hardwood floors and will push you toward great success in your own life.

WHERE ARE MY FOOTPRINTS?

 

This got me thinking about where I’m making “footprints” in my life. Where am I dedicating so much time and effort that the results will be seen forever? I’d like to think that my writing is becoming a footprint as I continuously and regularly make the "clackity noise". However, sometimes it feels like my footprint is being made in my desk chair as I check Twitter for the 7th time in 2 hours. I want my footprints to be evidence of my dedication and commitment to making the world a better place, not an insatiable desire to check my e-mail.

WHERE ARE YOUR FOOTPRINTS?

 

Think about what you do regularly. Where are you making footprints in your life? Are you literally making "footprints" in your recliner as you settle into your 3rd hour of Call of Duty for the day? Are you okay with that? Are you making footprints in the candy aisle at the grocery store? In your car as you drive 45 minutes each way to a job you hate? If you can make footprints there you can make footprints elsewhere. It's a matter of deciding where those footprints should be and taking the steps necessary to make them happen (which, admittedly, isn't always the simplest thing in the world). But it's only your own effort that can make them. I can't make footprints for you and your teachers can't make footprints for you. In the end, it's your call.

As Aristotle said (supposedly), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” It can be easy to let one excellent act or project define us. That’s not how it works. Our lives must be built upon repeated acts of excellence, of dedication, and of commitment. This is what builds mountains and chisels canyons.

Only this will make footprints.

 

Beyond Task Management

I try to be a keen observer of the world around me. Not only is it a good exercise in mindfulness, but learning how to observe myself and the way I interact with my environment has led to a wide array of improvements in my life. For example, realizing that my energy waxed and waned throughout the day allowed me to restructure the way I work to utilize my time more efficiently. Another result of learning how to observe has been developing a new way to think about the way values impact my life. Recently, a new observation has fought its way to the forefront of my attention: installing a task management system and adopting a lifelong learning approach appear to be inextricably linked.

For me, that has manifested itself as the Getting Things Done (GTD) system popularized by David Allen in the book of the same name. While that is my specific example, I don't think my overall point is reliant on this specific system. Instead, the overall principles that installing a task management system require seem to be the same principles that predict a life full of learning.

A task management system, at it's simplest, is a way for us to keep track of the commitments, requirements, responsibilities, and various tasks that make up our lives. Our jobs, lives, hobbies, families, friends, and interests constantly serve as impetuses for things we have to do and remember. Usually, sometime during high school a teacher hands you some sort of agenda or day planner and for many people that's as close as they ever get to adopting a true task management system. I distinctly remember feverishly filling out my agenda with the previous day's to-dos before the teacher came around to check my diligence in tracking my tasks.  

In high school we can usually get by with just keeping track of everything in our heads with perhaps an occasional note written on our hands. It's not too difficult to keep everything straight when you visit the same set of classes everyday, have the same type of homework, and have people (e.g. teachers) constantly reminding you of everything you have to do. If the real world was like that, there'd be no need for anything more elaborate to keep track of everything. 

However, usually sometime in college, perhaps after the first nervous breakdown, we start to realize that our heads may not be the greatest place to keep everything. We sit down with a fresh piece of paper and crank out a massive list of everything on our mind. For a brief moment we feel better, relieved even, by seeing a clear list of all of our commitments and responsibilities. However, over time that list loses it's relevance and once again we have lapsed into a state of fogginess over what precisely we need to do.

This fogginess is where the connection to lifelong learning comes in. Operating in a fog means that we're always a little bit wary of taking on anything else. We realize that we've committed to a lot of tasks and many people are relying on us for various projects, but we're never quite sure what's on our plate. Instead of scanning the horizon for chances to take on new activities that align with our values, we scan the horizon in an effort to avoid additional requirements on our utterly taxed minds. This results in us staying in a narrow rut with our eyes down doing our best to get by. We're somewhat aware of the fact that we're missing out on excellent opportunities, but we're so caught in the fog that it doesn't seem important as merely staying the course and trying to stay afloat.

This is a problem of our own design and merely requires us snapping out of our teenage sensibilities and approach our work and our world with more than a seat-of-the-pants mindset. My experience is with GTD, so that's what I'll use to illustrate my points. In GTD, we create a system external of our own minds where we can place information about everything we've committed to on some level. Over time, we come to trust this system to hold everything so our minds are now free to do what they do best, think creatively and solve problems -- not remember things. 

The details of the system aren't important. If it allows us to place our commitments outside our own heads and to regularly see them in their entirety, then it will prove beneficial. It's only when we can see the boundaries around our work that we can make wise decisions about what else we undertake. Lifelong learning requires that we scan the horizon for opportunities to improve and grow. Knowing that we regularly analyze and assess our commitments allows us to know how much mental power and availability we have for new adventures, new ideas, and new projects.

Therein lies the greatest benefit I've received from seriously committing to a task management system. It has nothing to do with being able to get more done or being more efficient. While those are nice side effects of using GTD, what I'm most thankful for is the ability to always know, at a glance, what I need to do and whether I can commit to anything new. In the past I'd feel like I was drowning under the weight of everything I had to do. I eventually realized, however, that it wasn't because I really had that much to do -- it was because I hadn't clarified what I actually had to do. Once everything I'd committed to had been clarified and articulated, I actually had a lot more space in my life for new projects. Without GTD, or any other task management system, I'd still be slogging away on poorly defined projects, unclear tasks, and meaningless busywork.

I'm intrigued by the idea that task management systems or more than just a list of what you need to do. They seem to be the mature response to figuring out how to make the biggest impact in the world as possible. Gone are the days for most of us where tasks are laid out in front of us and someone else kept track of what you had to do. Knowledge work, creative work, whatever you want to call it, requires us to constantly determine what our jobs actually are. Our brains are pretty amazing organs, but asking them to simultaneously remember everything we need to do, decide if it's important, clarify what the actual task is, and search for new opportunities is a little ridiculous. Mindfully creating a system to alleviate some of that burden is the sign of someone who is serious about utilizing their abilities and opportunity.

My familiarity is with GTD, but it doesn't have to be the only way to keep track of your life. What is your task management system like? Have you noticed any changes in the way you interact with your environment since having implemented it? I'd love to hear your input in the comment section below.

 

Adjusting Your Macro-Focus

If you’ve noticed that my writing has dropped off a little bit in the past few weeks, you’d be right. I’ve always believed that I should be writing about my life, not just feel-good theories about what it means to live better. For the past few weeks I’ve been fairly mired in a strange funk as I tried to figure out what is going on in my life. Luckily, I’ve made some significant progress recently and I’d like to share how a simple shift in my mindset has made an incredible difference on my level of happiness and satisfaction.

As I’ve written about a couple times already, I’ve been working as a full-time high school teacher since the beginning of January. This is what I went to college for so I should have been overjoyed to get this opportunity. I wasn’t. I’ve become fairly disillusioned with the prospect of being a high school teacher, but that’s a post for another time (actually, probably next week).

THE BREAKDOWN

At first I thought I just hated teaching. I dreaded getting up each morning and going to work. Yet, a funny thing happened. Every day at the end of school I found myself thinking, “Wow, well that went by pretty quick.” As soon as I removed myself from the teaching environment, the stress and anxiety would begin to build again until I was absolutely dreading getting up again and going to school the next day. It was weird. In fact, I even woke up one day, called in sick (even though I wasn’t), and begged my mom to go to lunch with me so we could talk about life. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a “breakdown.”

LOST FOCUS

Lately, I’ve come to realize what my problem actually was. I had a lack of focus. Usually, when I think of the concept of “focus” I imagine working on something without distractions (like how I’m writing this right now). That’s one type of focus, but that wasn’t the focus I was having trouble with. Instead, I was having trouble focusing at a macro-level.

Prior to accepting the teaching job I was essentially already working full-time for myself. I wrote and worked on my blog all day, everyday. It was my job and I enjoyed it. The problem was that I tried to put two full-time jobs on top of each other, and then wondered why I almost had a mental breakdown. Everyday at 2:30 when the final bell rung I’d feel guilty for not spending the previous 7 hours working on my blog. I’d get home and not even know where to begin with my blogging efforts because I felt so far behind and out of the loop. Plus, if I did sit down to work on my blog the pile of ungraded papers would leer at me from across the room. Or I’d start thinking about the planning I had to do to prepare for the next day of classes.

No matter what I worked on, it was the wrong thing.

TAKING MY OWN ADVICE

I couldn’t continue like this for the remainder of my teaching assignment so I finally did the intelligent thing. I reduced my commitments. Reducing my commitment came in the form of scaling back my output to one article per week. But more importantly, it was a matter of being completely okay with the fact that I’m not a full-time blogger right now.

As soon as I kept putting the unrealistic expectations of a full-time blogger and all the work that entails on top of my already hectic schedule of teaching, my mental condition improved 100%.

The best thing is, both aspects of my life have improved dramatically. I can commit more of my energy to teaching without feeling guilty about everything I’m not doing for my blog. I can take the time to really lose myself within the job for a couple months and see if this is truly what I want to do for the rest of my life. Frankly, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to get a taste of “real” teaching as a long-term sub and not as a contracted teacher that is essentially locked in for a year. I’ve started to enjoy it much more and it has allowed me to decide where I should direct my energy in the future.

QUALITY TIME WILL TRUMP QUANTITY OF TIME, EVERY TIME

Consequently, even though my decision resulted in less attention and energy being directed at my writing, coaching, and speaking — that area of my life has seen improvement as well. My time may be more limited, but it is much, much higher quality time. A small amount of high quality time allows me to create much better work, even if it's in a lesser quantity, than I was accomplishing in my earlier unfocused state.

The simple act of adjusting my focus at the macro level, on a specific area of my life at the “expense” of another, has allowed me to enjoy both to a much greater extent than I had been lately.

ADJUSTING YOUR MACRO-FOCUS

Where can you adjust your macro-focus? We all have multiple roles, commitments, and responsibilities that are always pulling us in different directions. What if you shifted your focus from some of those requirements and centered your focus on just one area of your life — even if just for a week? Or a couple days? Maybe just an hour or two?

The tendency is to view a shifting of focus away from an area of your life as an admission that it’s not as important to you. Baloney. You should give every commitment and responsibility that you have your complete and utter focus… but not all the time. You can shift focus and you can come back to something later.

I’m going to take my own advice and kick some serious ass for the next 3 weeks of teaching. Then, in early April, my website is getting some undivided attention. If you can stick around that long (come on now, the Archives should keep you busy for awhile, right?) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Focus, work hard, focus on something else, work harder. Repeat as necessary. Reap the rewards.