3 words come to mind as I think of entering my 28th year – engagement, perspective, and faith.

Engagement. Engagement is my theme for the year. For the longest time, I was fascinated by a quote from a zen master that said – “The essence of zen is to be able to focus on one thing at a time.” So simple and, yet, so profound. That is my goal this year – to be engaged through my days and to focus on one thing at a time. As I live these days, so I live my life.

Perspective. Thanks to immigration related issues, there’s a fair bit of uncertainty as to where we’ll be a few months from now. While we’re doing everything we can to sort this out, there’s little we actually control. However, as much as we’d love for the uncertainty to go away, I recognize that the “worst case” isn’t a “worst case” after all. A combination of some hard work and a few lucky breaks have ensured we don’t have to worry about the basics. That privilege is a reminder of how much I owe and is a wonderful source of perspective. The beauty of this perspective, in turn, is that it enables me to keep good humor as I go through the inevitable ups and downs. And, I hope to keep that combination of good humor and perspective with me as I engage through my days this year.

Faith. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens drove home a beautiful point. As humans, we all worship some faith. It might be traditional religions like Christianity, Islam or Hinduism or it could be non-traditional ideologies like liberalism, communism or even celebrity culture. David Foster Wallace, in his legendary commence speech – “This is Water” – wisely asked us to “be careful what you worship.”

I had an epiphany yesterday that my faith of choice is learning. And, I’ve come to be thankful for such a wonderfully benevolent faith that ignores the nature of what happens and just reminds me to ask – “What am I learning from this experience?”

Here’s to engagement, perspective and learning this year. Hope you all have a lovely day. :)

(Past birthday notes: 2726, 25, 2423)

Disproportionate energy

There are sure to be small things in your day that infuse you with a disproportionate amount of energy.

It could be a cup of coffee after lunch, a walk by yourself, a piece of delicious chocolate cake, or an extra hour of sleep.

If you know what there are, then it might be time to allow yourself that boost. Often, denying them just means thinking about them for the rest of the day or spending willpower attempting to resist.

If a small investment can give you a disproportionate energy boost the rest of the day, it is likely worth it. Engagement takes energy and we generally need all the boosts we can get.

We don’t make an impact by the number of hours we put into life. Instead, we make an impact by the number of hours we engage with life.

2017 Themes

I had 3 “look back” posts in the past ten days or so that all built up to my annual review. After all that looking back, the time has now come to look forward. I don’t like new years resolutions as I’m not a fan of “goals” based thinking. Instead, I prefer thinking in terms of direction and process. So, I prefer thinking of the new year in terms of themes.

My theme for the new year is engagement. I believe engagement is the answer to the debates around managing energy versus managing time. As with most important things, it isn’t an either/or. And, I also believe engagement is a principle that a good life is anchored around. And, as with all life principles, it is very hard to consistently live it. Also, I think of engagement and consciousness (the ability to be aware and to choose) as sister concepts. They share the same core.

While engagement is the high level theme, my audit and reading pointed to 3 sub themes.

The first theme is – “Seek to understand and then to be understood” – from my holiday re-read of “The 7 Habits.” I am way too impatient and, as a result, interrupt far too much than I’d like. I’d like to do better, a lot better. This isn’t something that’s easy to measure. So, I intend to just check in with myself every day for starters as I build my instincts around this.

The second theme is health. As I grow older, the idea of being very fit grows increasingly more appealing. I haven’t done as bad a job at this so far. But, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I used Mr Money Mustache’s excellent post on “Staying fit with no gym in sight” to reflect on this and piece together my health plan. The first part of this plan is to moderate my diet better – my diet is still pretty carbohydrate heavy (I love rice!). And, having just discovered the benefits of doing a full body work out during the week, I’ll aim to keep that going through this year.

The final theme is information. Again, there are two pieces. First, I’ve been working on streamlining my information diet over the past couple of weeks. I massively cut down on my news consumption and went through a review of every source I regularly consume on Feedly. I also took a good look at my work email flow and consumption habits and have made a few changes. The idea here is to be a lot more conscious about this as I still check my email and feeds far more than I’d like. The second piece of this theme is doubling down on reading books. I have a reading list that I cannot wait to get to. And, I’d like to spend more time on deep book reading over shallower sources.

I expect to see a step change in my level of engagement/consciousness if I work through these sub themes. But, as with all good processes, the journey is sure to be filled with learning. While seeking to understand will help me improve on my interactions with others, I see my approach to health and information as crucial. The better my health and information diets, the more energy I expect to have to be engaged through the day.

Lots of work to do. Onward.

PS: Peter Koehler, a reader, has done a nice job co-creating “The New Years Reader” – to be read aloud and shared with your close friends and family. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. I contributed a thought to it as well. The theme should look familiar to you. :)

“We are a by-product of our questions. Perhaps we stop asking ourselves about how we can be better/best at something this year and, instead, ask ourselves – “How can I be engaged every day? How can I make sure I am being conscious about my decisions?”

All this would take is a commitment to spend 3 minutes to ask yourselves these questions at the start of your day, every day. And, a calendar reminder to re-commit to this habit every weekend.

Wishing you more engaged, more conscious days this new year. As we live our days, so we live our lives…”

Fully engaged

What would it take for you to be fully engaged throughout the day? By fully engaged, I mean paying full attention to whatever you are doing. You could be paying attention to two things at once if you are working through a repetitive task. But, that should be the exception and not the rule.

As I ask myself that question, I realize that full engagement entails a collection of ideas that I’ve grouped into hygiene factors (the basic things we need to get right), organization factors and the inspiration factor.

I. Hygiene factors

Sleep. Full engagement is tiring.

Good diet. Replenishing our energy store is important during the day. The better the diet, the better our energy in the long run. And, caffeine isn’t a long term solution. :)

An active lifestyle. Full engagement requires a high level of energy. And, it is hard to maintain high energy without an active lifestyle.

II. Organization factors

A solid week plan. I think a good week is structured like a music performance. It has its ebbs and flows (meeting days and deep work days) so as to allow you to push hard on some days and recover on others.

Clear priorities. Unclear priorities results in a lack of focus. I’ve also come to realize that clarity of priorities requires us to keep committing to re-prioritizing through the day as we get newer information.

A realistic to do list. Being overwhelmed isn’t conducive to full engagement. Keeping a realistic to do list requires us to say no to things we can’t get done in a day. This isn’t an easy practice. But, keeping our work schedule contained is an important practice for long term engagement.

III. The inspiration factor

Clarity of purpose. While the above ensure a certain amount of energy during the week, clarity of purpose is where energy and inspiration and come from.

Your list may be a bit different. Your ordering will likely be different. But, this collection of factors is likely to remain.

Regardless of what the specifics are, I’ve come to realize that asking ourselves the question – “What will it take to be fully engaged?” – is among the most powerful life process questions there is. For, attention and engagement is where love, growth and appreciation reside.

For them or for us

Stakeholder update meetings are necessary in any project. If you’re running an event for a school, the administration would love to understand what you are up to. In companies, it is a mix of senior management, steering committees and clients.

One way to approach these meetings is for teams to take the “for them” approach. The default reasoning here is that these update meetings are for senior management/clients to see what we’re doing, poke holes, demand better results, and perhaps even put more work on our plates.

The “for us” approach deals with the same reality with a different lens. The reason for stakeholder meetings in the “for us” approach is for the team to reflect, take stock and learn. We do this by sharing our progress so far with senior management/clients, discuss roadblocks and look for opportunities to course correct as necessary. We aren’t doing this meeting “for them.” We’re doing it because we care about our work and it is wonderful to have them as we can learn from their experiences. Yes, they can be painful. But, that’s part of the learning process.

The former is normally used. The latter inspires better work.

As always, we choose.

Mental adventures and our search for engagement

Bored teens often cause all sorts of societal problems by getting into bad company. Bored office workers spend most of their time making up forwards and memes. Bored couples have affairs and mid-life crises. And, bored elders become negative, cynical and turn their energy on their family members. I call these ‘mental adventures’ as they speak to our need to infuse some drama into an otherwise boring life.

The first principle of boredom is that – if you are bored, it is really not anyone else’s problem. However, it often becomes someone else’s problem if you don’t do something about it.

We’re all built to handle a bit of boredom. But, not too much of it. We care most about feeling engaged. This is why Amazon purchased Twitch for nearly 1 billion dollars. What is Twitch? A website that records other people playing games. 1 billion dollars for a website that just records other’s playing games? Yes. Twitch is, of course, a small part of a video gaming industry worth nearly 100 billion dollars.

In short, engagement matters. And, we need to gift ourselves that feeling of engagement. There are many ways to do it – we can choose to read more, get involved in more activities that stimulate our mind, and do more for society. However, they’re all much harder than switching on a video game and settling down for hours on our couch. That’s what makes finding engagement hard. To find real engagement, we need to overcome the resistance.

The other massive challenge here is that it is not an easy concept for teens and the elderly to grasp. That’s why a teenage child often turns out to be a parent’s most difficult challenge. If parents pass the engagement test and keep their teen engaged (largely) on stuff that is productive, that’s a massive victory.
It gets much harder with the elderly and that results in a vast disparity between how the elderly behave. On one side, you have the the Warren Buffetts and Jiro Onos of the world who are still taking the world on in their 80s. And, on the other side, we’ve got many older folk who can barely walk straight at 75.

Engagement is critical for a happy and productive life. And, it is entirely up to us to keep our mind engaged.