In a conversation with Cal Newport after he published his latest book, Deep Work, a friend asked him how his writing projects fed into his “real job” as a researcher and professor. He explained that his books had no impact on whether he’d receive tenure. But, since he wrote about how to work better, his findings fed into how he approached work. He also added that his experiences had led him to believe that it is only possible to really do justice to 2 projects at any given time – your work and one other meaningful project. It is an idea that stuck with me and one I call “The 2 project design.”
We must all take time to design our ideal lives. A simple life design process will typically have 3 steps –
1. Setting a few design principles – we’ll call them values or guiding principles. This should ideally do 2 things – state your overall priorities and commit to a few habits/systems you’d like to have. For example, overall priorities in my case are self-care, framily-care (framily = close friends and family), work-care, and world-care. A few habits/systems I’d like to have are sleep 8 hours, eat healthy, exercise, read, and catch up regularly with framily.
2. Create the design constraints – These habits/systems should now give you design constraints. For examples, my systems take away 8 hours every night, 30-40 mins during the day around exercise, another 30 mins reading, etc. They also set boundaries on what the ideal work day would be. Once I have this down, I do a quick check to make sure if my schedule is in alignment with my principles.
3. Design for a maximum of 2 “good work” projects. I think we all want to do good work – however we want to define it. Good work speaks to our need for purpose and our need to answer that existential question – what should we do with our time? For most of us at this point of time, one of these projects is our paying job – our work. I would consider thinking of this in this way –
– The career project – present and future. Think of the career project as having 2 parts. The first part is the present – this is all the stuff you do every day to be employable and earn your keep. The second part should be thinking about and working toward your future. This need not be more than a few hours per week. But, it matters that you think of it and work toward it.
– The learning project. The second side project I’d strongly consider is the learning project. Do something, anything, to aide your overall learning and development. Some of this learning could feed into your career projects. But, it matters that we invest in ourselves. The key distinction between these 2 projects is that the learning project is not done with any intent to monetize. It is, in a sense, “not-for-profit.”
All this will need to be applied to your context, of course. If you are pursuing a career in research, for example, you may not need to spend time working on your “future” as that is what you do as part of your job. But, for the many who fight fires on a daily basis, having a future component is critical. My learning from attempting side projects over the years is that these side learning projects help you learn and grow in ways you will never imagine. But, after having attempted one too many, I have come to realize that Cal is spot on – focus your energy on your career project and ONE central learning project.
Once you design these, it’ll be interesting to see where they all have overlap. For example, if you are hugely passionate about not-for-profits and social impact, maybe you’ll design your learning project as running a not-for-profit on the side and make sure you do plenty of daily reading on the topic. These overlaps/”synergies” will develop over time. Another example – if you care about spending time with framily, maybe a couple of your exercise slots will involve playing games with them. The possibilities are endless.
Designing your life is a very personal experience. There is never going to be a “right” way to do it. If you are sharing your life with a partner, it makes sense to be as coordinated as possible. In that sense, there may be a few “right” constraints. But, beyond that, it is your life to design. What matters most is that we’re intentional about it and that we iterate our way into a design that works.
Thanks to source for the image