Just one thing this time

I was mulling a new weekend project today. For a change, I shut it down before the thought germinated.

As unexciting as that might sound, it marked an important moment in my learning journey.

Over the past months, I’ve been working hard to simplify my life so I can focus on the two things that I expect will move the needle on my long term happiness – learning and contributing at work and being as good a partner and dad as I possibly can.

There are a list of things I’d like to do more. For instance, I’d like to find time to play more soccer. I’d also like to write more long form posts. But, in reality, for the first time in a decade, I’ve barely played soccer in the past months. And, I haven’t done any long form writing on tech and product management either. So, before I get excited about a new weekend project, it helps to remind myself that there’s an existing backlog for when I have more time.

Of course, I’d like to do more than just focus on working and being there for the family. But, I haven’t found a way to do that without sleeping less and messing with my health – that, in turn, would mean doing a sub par job on the two things that matter at the moment. So, we’re back to square one.

It took a bit of reflection after having our second child last year to arrive at this conclusion. I care deeply about being an engaged member of the family. And, after ~7 years of career finding, I’m finally 2+ years into a role that is a great fit and intend to make the most of the steep learning curve that lies ahead. I’ve come to accept that there’s little time left after embracing these constraints.

It is lovely to experience this sort of focus for the first time. I don’t spend any time on weekdays or weekends wondering when I can squeeze a bit of time to do this or that. I can just be – assured in the knowledge that there’s nothing else more important.

For many years, I gave lip service to the idea of fewer things done better. I’ve written plenty about prioritization over the years and did a passable job at it. My answer in the past was always to find some way to fit as much as I could in. But, as I realized in the second half of 2018, that approach doesn’t work with hard constraints.

One of my favorite ideas in the realm of prioritization is that saying no to things that don’t matter enables us to say yes to things that do. I’ve shared this many times over as a wishful note to self.

It is only now that I am beginning to draw clear boundaries, embrace trade-offs, and say yes to things that matter.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to make more progress down that road in the coming months – both at home and at work.

What we’re paying attention to today

I think of two paragraphs on Attention from Eric Weiner’s book – “The Geography of Bliss” – from time to time.

“Attention’ is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the… well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love, and happiness, and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.

My two-year-old daughter fusses at my feet as I type these words. What does she want? My love? Yes, in a way, but what she really wants is my attention. Pure, undiluted attention. Children are expert at recognizing counterfeit attention. Perhaps love and attention are really the same thing. One can’t exist without the other.”

The quote “show me your schedule and I’ll show you your priorities” has the right idea. Our schedule is a reflection of what we pay attention to.

What are we paying attention to today?

Stuff that matters

Sometime during the week, we’ll be pulled into thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter. It may start with that crappy meeting or unhelpful conversation. But, it could lead us to think about the many things that we don’t really care about – status, the thing after the next thing, riches or earning plaudits from someone who is deliberately hard to please.

It is hard to avoid that. But, life is so much better without that noise and pointless rumination.

So, one way around it is to start the week by thinking about all the stuff that actually matters to us: good health, nourishing food for the stomach, mind and soul, the feeling of our heart beating rapidly after a sprint, the touch of a loved one, our love for the team we work with, and progress toward change we believe in.

Today is an opportunity to focus on the stuff that actually matters. And, maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember to start more days this week with the same focus.

But, we’ve got to begin somewhere. And, that’s today. That’s why we call today a gift – the present.

It is an opportunity like no other.

Let’s make it count.

Building a Personal Mission Statement

I’ve been mentioning “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” a lot more than usual of late. I decided to re-read my favorite book after a fun conversation about books a few weeks back. And, I’m glad I did that. One of the exercises in Habit 2 is to draft a Personal Mission Statement. Interestingly, this is identical to the idea that Clay Christensen talks about in the “Finding your purpose” part of his great book. However, I didn’t make the connection. Instead, I spent a lot of time attempting to decode his notes. Now, I wish I’d thought of going back to Covey’s work as he lays it out quite beautifully.

I thought I’d share my Personal Mission Statement with you. It is now in its 5th iteration, I think. I’ll also share what I’ve learnt from the process in case you’d like to consider building one for yourself. The act of doing this has added an incredible amount of clarity in my life over the years. So, should you choose to do it, I trust you’ll find the exercise valuable as well. And, if you’re looking for more convincing, think about this – what would you think of an organization with no mission or vision statement? And, why should you be any different?

That said, over to the learning.

Learning 1 – Approach building a mission statement like a hypothesis test. Let me start with a quote from holocaust survivor and logotherapist extraordinaire, Viktor Frankl.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Frankl wisely tells us that it is up to us to find meaning in our lives. A way to do that is to ask ourselves – what must our life be for it to be meaningful? Or, in other words, how will you measure your life?

There isn’t a single, easy answer. But, it isn’t an unsolvable riddle either. Once you decide to do it, approach it like a hypothesis test. For instance, the first version of my one line mission was – “To inspire and be inspired.” But, it didn’t feel right after a while. So, my next version had something about relationships and impact. Then, someone who knew me well said it should be about “active relationships” since I loved building things with people I cared about and engaging them. And, thus, the next iteration happened and so on.

Start with a hypothesis. And, keep revisiting till it feels right.

Learning 2 – If you are stuck, take a trip into your future and paint the picture of your ideal life. Thinking about what you’d like your life to be 20 years from now is often a nice place to start. Or, you can go straight to your funeral and imagine what people say about you. These are all ways to get ideas flowing.

Learning 3 – There isn’t a template. Your mission statement can be 1 line, 1 page or 10 pages. Whatever it is, make it your own.

Learning 4 – Simplicity helps a ton though. Over time, I’ve found myself consistently shortening my mission statement. This is partly because I’ve come to appreciate and strive for brevity over time (the irony about this post being very long is not lost on me :)). And, partly, it is because I’ve found my mission statement to be most useful when I can easily remember it.

For example, my one line mission gets shortened into three values in my mind – people, learning and impact. And, my principles are integrity, love/growth and consciousness/engagement (a new addition). This makes it so much easier when I am stuck on a decision.

Learning 5 – It helps, at first, to make these actionable and check in on these from time to time. I started with daily checks, then a long list of weekly checks combined with a log of how I spent my week. This, then, become a shorter list of checks that took 5-7 minutes every weekend. As of last month, it is a much shorter list (shared below) that takes a couple of minutes. I expect to have no such checks in a few years. But, for now, I find it helpful to check in with myself every weekend to build my instincts as they generally suck at first.

Okay, now to my current version.

My personal mission statement is the same as my “why” or my “purpose”
Build active relationships with framily (close friends and family), learn, and strive to have a positive impact on my world and, in time, “the world.”

These also form my 3 core valuesPeople, Learning, Impact.
(These align with my intrinsic motives – learning and impact are high and my values remind me to make sure I remember that people are all we have.)

3 principles that govern my life and that I need to commit and re-commit to:
1. Integrity: Integrity is making and keep commitments. I commit to walking what I talk and talking what I walk.
2. Love/Growth: Love is the will to extend oneself for one’s own or another’s spiritual/mental growth. So, I commit to doing small things with extraordinary love and to continuous growth.
3. Consciousness/Engagement: To focus on consciousness is to commit to the process of life, to experimentation and to the idea that “this might not work.. And that’s okay.” The important questions I need to ask are not about perfection or performance. Instead, they are – “Am I engaged? Am I being conscious about my decisions?”

I live and measure these in my 4 roles (in order of priority):
1. Leader of self
2. A caring member of my framily
3. A learning focused teammate
4. A responsible community contributor, i.e., the world

And, here’s a screen shot of my check in list.

Hope this helps. Happy reflecting!

Five career priorities

There are five career priorities –

1. Location
2. Industry
3. Company
4. Role
5. Team/people

Every career choice we make comes back to how we solve for these. We can make career decisions easier for ourselves by keeping four things in mind.

First, we ought to know that it gets harder to change multiple priorities. If you are trying to change just a role or team within your company, that is likely among the easier things to do. It is harder to change companies, industries, locations. And, of course, it is harder to change two or three things at a time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It is just very hard. Location can be particularly hard for those who weren’t born with American or European passports. And, for most people, graduate school tends to a way to enable such change.

Second, every time you make a move, it helps to create a stack rank of these priorities. What are you trying to achieve? And, at what cost? It is rare you are going to end up with the perfect combination. You have to know what you are willing to trade off. Also, I’ve noticed that when most folks make career decisions, they focus on points 1-4. That is natural. There is just one problem – the people we surround ourselves with have a massive impact on our daily well-being. So, beware ignoring the team/people priority.

Third, the first two priorities are the hardest to solve for. So, if we can find a way to resolve this or simply eliminate them, it’ll ease any transition. For example, if you are focused on one industry, you can now focus on four priorities instead of five.

Finally, the best way to think about career moves is to layer a longer term / directional perspective. Instead of attempting to change multiple priorities today, look to work on changing one or two at a time. For example, you can make a move across industries within the same role as a starting point. Then, attempt to change role and so on.

As a bonus point, it is easy to second guess your past career decisions when you try to make changes. It is easy to look around and feel “behind.” But, it is worth reminding ourselves that we’ve gotten here by doing the best we could with what we knew.

Now that we know better, we will do better.

First thing

What is the first thing that gets thrown out of the window when things get busy or difficult?

In my life, it used to be either sleep or exercise a few years ago. I know folk who would point to a good diet or reading good books. And, then there are others who would probably point to time with family.

The first thing thrown out of the window is very instructive because it generally points to the thing we take for granted. If we take our health for granted, we’d probably throw sleep, exercise or food. If we take our growth for granted, we’d probably throw books or learning. And, if we take our relationships for granted, we’d ignore them while we are busy.

All of these are the easy choices. That’s why we let go of them so easily when push comes to shove. But, more often than not, easy is a good proxy for wrong.

Every one of these falls under the “important and not urgent” bucket. And, we’ll never get to the important investments if all we do is fight fires every day. Furthermore, the challenge with many of these investments is that, unlike the urgent stuff, it doesn’t feel like our effort is paying off for the longest time.

Until it does.

Saying yes, saying no – The 200 words project

Cynthia once recalled an incident from when she was 12 years old. Her father promised to take her with him on a business trip to San Francisco. For months, they talked about the trip. “After his meetings, we planned to take a taxi to Chinatown, have our favorite food, see a movie, ride the cable car, and have a hot-fudge sundae. I was bursting with anticipation,” she recalled.

When the day finally arrived, Cynthia waited eagerly for her father to finish work. At 6:30pm, he arrived, but with an influential business client who offered to take them out for dinner. She felt her heart sink.

In a never-to-be-forgotten moment, her father simply said to his client: “I’d love to see you. But, my girl and I have planned a special evening to the minute.” So, together, father and daughter did everything according to their plans. “That was just about the happiest time of my life. I don’t think any young girl ever loved her father as much as I loved mine that night,” she says.

Cynthia’s father was none other than Stephen R Covey. Covey did put “first things first.” Here’s to all of us doing so over the holidays…

no, yes, stephen covey, prioritiesSource

Every time we say yes to something that doesn’t matter, we implicitly say no to something else that does. And, conversely, every time we say no to something that is lower priority, we implicitly say yes to something that matters. – Anonymous

Source and thanks to: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Living with a list

I wasn’t a big list person growing up. I believed it got in the way of relaxation and spontaneity. David Allen’s books – “Getting Things Done” and “Ready for Anything” changed that point of view. I’ve learnt to both use and appreciate lists over the past few years.

As I think about the coming weeks, the list I’ve put together is fairly ambitious considering there’s time off and a fair bit of travel planned. However, the order of tasks make it very clear as to which ones are the “must dos” vs. “nice to haves.” A few lesser priority “nice-to-haves” (including a lot of little improvements to this blog) have gotten pushed back again. But, that’s just part of the prioritization process. I’ve learnt to enjoy it rather than have it stress me out. Thanks to this, I learn to scope work and improve my estimates on how much I can actually get done, to stretch myself a bit (if I want to), to evaluate what actually matters and get better at re-prioritizing and making decisions.

Most importantly, putting these ideas down on a list means being able to take time off without a worry in the world. It means being very well prepared for unexpected obstacles and it means being alive, present and mindful when I’m not working on the list.

What’s not to like?

list, priorities


Show me your schedule

A friend of mine has an hour set aside every week for a priorities check. During this hour, she goes through her past week’s schedule. This schedule is color coded with every event tagged to her various priorities. She adds up the hours she spends on various activities to get to the time spent per priority. If she is spending less hours on her top priority in comparison with the next two, she knows it is time to change tactics.

If there is a better way to check on our ability to prioritize, I don’t know of it yet. I plan to incorporate this idea into my life as well.

We are what we do. And, our priorities are never what they say are. Show me your schedule… and I’ll show you your priorities.