5 ways to do more of the work that matters most to you

1. Shorten transitions

Go straight to the next thing. Keep your momentum.

Transitions get hairy.

There’s nothing settled; everything is up in the air.

It’s wide open, and there are all sorts of options, and no direction, and chaos can erupt pretty fast.

We may know what we’re supposed to do next, or what would be best to do next, but in a transition… things get hairy.

We’re cleaning up, or putting away, or commuting to the next thing, or shifting gears, or whatever. In that space, we can lose all focus, all direction, and we see all sorts of options.

Not all the options are good, right?

We’ve all dealt with extended transitions: the month-before-you-move transition, when you’re packing and decluttering and just surviving until you move so you can have Real Life again. Pregnancy is just nine months of transition. How about the two weeks after you put in your notice at your old job, or the time until your divorce gets finalized, or until you graduate from school.

Little transitions cause all sorts of trouble when they’re extended beyond the what’s needed. It’s worse when you have kids. Once we get them ready to go out the door, we gotta go! before somebody tips over the box of toys, somebody else spills the cup of milk, somebody else plays in the toilet, somebody else loses a shoe. Transitions extended too long become chaos. This is true with or without kids involved. (But if you ever want to see a clear example, hang out in some sort of extended transition – waiting room, waiting to leave, waiting to board, waiting for food – with a toddler or two.)

Yes, sometimes you need a Break. But a Break is not the same as a transition.

A Break is a pause from working, a rest period when you are not actively moving from one thing to another thing, but are engaging in a restful period. A transition might move you to a Break but it is not a Break.

Good transitions move you as efficiently as possible from Point 1 to Point 2.

Lingering in the middle, without a plan, aimlessly, because you’re tired or procrastinating or unsure or indecisive about how to start… that’s an energy-draining, time-wasting swamp you can get lost in for a long time. Mentally/psychically, it’s wandering, and that’s when negative thoughts surface: fears, doubts, worries you can’t do anything about.

  • Extended transitions tend to become chaos.
  • A transition is not a break. If you need a break, take one.
  • A transition is not the same as percolation.
  • Don’t rush through transitions (that will backfire) but don’t linger in them, either.
  • If you’re stuck in transition because, for some reason, you can’t get to Point 2, take control: change Point 2 into Point 3 and invent a new Point 2, one you can reach. (This is a good way to handle those long transitions.)

2. Define points of completion

What will you produce with your next action?

A moment of connection, a song, a concept, a new product, a moment of silence, a bigger perspective, a blog post, a drawing?

If you can’t figure out what you’re producing, what are you doing?

Even relaxing has a production value, if you think about it: taking a nap, taking a walk, taking a significant break… all of these produce a worker (you) who is refreshed, rested, relaxed, and able to focus on the next task.

Pseudo-breaks (social media, busy work, procrastination) don’t have the same effect as real breaks. They don’t produce a relaxed, refreshed you; in fact, all that digital input or procrastinating detail work tires your brain and leaves you emotionally drained. You get less refreshed, less relaxed, less energized, less able to focus.

When you need a break, take a real break that will have a real and positive effect on you.

When you are doing something, working, think about what you’re trying to produce. This helps you to define your task and avoid getting distracted by all the other needs that will scream at you. Define your goal so you can define your task.

Then ignore other tasks until you get through the one you’re focused on and reach your production goal.

The point isn’t to be a productive robot, but to give yourself a way to finish the things you start. We’ve all had those days when we look around and see 25 tasks we started, left in various points of completion, with nothing we can call done. Those are discouraging days.

There are always going to be some projects in progress. Look within those projects; think about each task or time block spent on a project terms of the production you want to get from it. Now you’ve defined smaller, reachable points of completion. Now you can reach a point of completion even if the project, in its entire scope, is still ongoing.

  • A point of completion can be big or small.
  • Defining a point of completion forces you to be clear about how you’re using your energy and time.
  • A point of completion helps you stay focused on the actions that will help you reach that point.
  • The human mind wants completion and feels frustrated without it. Give yourself small points of completion within longer projects to avoid that frustration.

3. Go straight to what scares you

Freedom and growth mean pushing toward the thing that scares you. What scares you is what has the power to hold you, to trap you, to keep you locked down.

Maybe it’s failure or maybe it’s success.

Maybe what scares you most is taking a risk. Or maybe what scares you, what shakes you to your core, is the idea of structure. Predictability. “A normal life.”

Maybe being alone is what scares you. Maybe being vulnerable with someone scares you. Maybe it’s being controlled, or maybe it’s losing your ability to control someone else.

Whatever it is, it’s the thing that makes you feel that gasp, that “aaaah,” that sharp, intake of breath. It’s the thing that makes your heart pound, that sends an internal reverberation through you.

That’s the thing you need to do. The work that matters most is always related to the thing that scares you most.

But listen. Calm down for a second. To face your fear does not mean, necessarily, to run headlong into it. You don’t need extremes.

Maybe your fear is being alone. Pretend with me.

So you read this and you think, “I have to face my fear, I have to overcome, I have to be alone, I have to be all by myself, now!” And you break up with your significant other and drop your friends and move to a cabin in the woods. Or something drastic like that.

Stop. You don’t have to do that. Listen to this:

All the laws are the same — inner laws and outer laws. The same principles drive everything in this world. If you pull a pendulum out one way, it will swing back just that far the other way. If you’ve been starving for days, and somebody puts food in front of you, you won’t be polite while you’re eating. You will shove the food into your mouth like an animal. The degree to which you will act like an animal is the exact degree to which you were starved enough to bring up your animal instincts.

…When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is. You carve a groove and you get stuck in it. Then there’s no energy moving you in the Tao; it’s all being spent serving the extremes.”

from The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

The goal is not to move from one extreme (doing everything you can to avoid being alone because you fear it so much) to another extreme (isolating and disconnecting yourself from healthy relationships in order to experience being alone).

You don’t need extremes in order to grow.

Small steps will do. Small versions are powerful. Small movements have big energy. The pebble, the water, the ripple. Drop in the tiniest pebble. Watch the ripples expand.

You don’t need to transplant a tree; plant a tiny seed, instead, and watch it grow.

Face your fear of being alone by doing one thing by yourself that you’d normally be afraid to do alone. One step. One movement. One pebble.

The cage that fear creates is not strong. It seems strong. It seems impenetrable. But if you look at it, really look, you notice something strange. The cage isn’t solid. The bars are made of illusions, images, whispers, secrets, and lies. Nothings. None of it is real. When you drop the pebble in the pond, the ripple pushes out and pushes against the fear, and you see it waver. The next ripple pushes and the fear shakes. The next ripple hits, and the fear folds in on itself, falls apart.

When enough bars fall, the whole cage collapses.

  • What scares you most is related to the work that matters most to you. (Because desire and fear are two sides of the same coin.)
  • Facing your fear will remove its power and free you to do the work.
  • Facing your fear does not require extremes.
  • Find a small way to face your fear, a small action. Do it, then again, and again. Watch the fear shrink into nothing.

4. Optimize one thing at a time

Optimize only what you’re focused on improving (building, achieving, succeeding at) right now.

If you try to optimize everything, you will fail at everything.

Optimizing is good. Optimizing is what you do when you set up your systems to be more efficient. When you look for sustainable solutions. When you forego the short-term, quick relief for a long-term, permanent change.

But optimizing everything all the time is ridiculous. It’s demanding perfection of yourself. It’s a trap.

There’s a balance of improving and accepting. Optimizing and maintaining.

Think of all the stuff of your life as a big lake of clear, cool water. You’re in a boat, floating on the water. In your hand is a bucket. You dip the bucket into the lake, and what you pull out: that’s your focus. That’s what you’re going to improve, optimize, spend your energy on. The rest – all the water still in the lake – is there supporting you, flowing with you. It’s not going anywhere. But if you try to get it all in the boat with you, you’ll sink.

One bucket at a time.

For everything else – everything not in the bucket – set a level of acceptability and quit worrying about it. Flow with the routines of your life, as they exist. Set the minimums – the baselines – then get yourself on auto-pilot so you achieve the minimums with the least possible fuss and effort.

Now you can focus on the one or two things you are optimizing.

  • You can only optimize a little at a time.
  • Trying to optimize (improve, fix) everything at once will exhaust and trap you.
  • Work with the balance of optimizing and maintaining.
  • Optimize one bucket at a time.
  • Accept whatever’s not in the bucket as is; no guilt, no worry. Let it support you.

5. Accept the obstacles

The only way to avoid obstacles is to have no aim, to simply go wherever you are pushed.

You know people like this. We call them victims. They are needy, hurting, unfulfilled people. We can pity them, but we should not become them.

The world is full of obstacles. We spend too much time avoiding them. Challenges make us alive. Challenges open our eyes to what we can handle.

When you set your sights on something, you’re going to have to deal with whatever is between you and your goal.

It’s not about the universe being against you, or your bad luck.

It has nothing to do with you, in fact.

It’s simply that where you are is not the same as where you’re aiming to be, and there is stuff in between Point A and Point B. To get to Point B, you’re going to have to strike out and encounter that stuff. Deal with it.

You can take it personally, get offended, feel cheated, feel victimized, and give up. Retreat back to Point A. Decide it’s too much work. Reason that ‘if it was meant to be’ you wouldn’t have encountered all those obstacles.

But that’s a load of crap. Obstacles don’t exist to stop you from reaching your goal. They exist because the world exists. Because there is stuff in the world. Because between you (today) and you (tomorrow) are 24 hours of anything-can-happen. Anything can happen! It’s a game. It’s a challenge. How are you going to make it to tomorrow? What will you be like when you arrive?

Practice builds skill. Persistence builds consistency. Achievement builds confidence.

Dealing with obstacles gives you practice, persistence, and the ability to achieve in small ways as you move forward. All of that – the skill and consistency and confidence you gain, as a result – enables you to do the work you really want to do.

Overcoming the obstacles isn’t a hindrance. It’s an essential part of doing your work and reaching your goal.

So don’t be surprised by obstacles. Anticipate them. Look forward to them as things that help you become that much better, that much stronger. See them, learn from them, and deal with them, one at a time.

  • The only way to avoid obstacles is to be aimless and victimized.
  • Obstacles aren’t there to stop you or warn you or work against you, personally.
  • Obstacles serve you. They help you develop your skills, build consistency in effort, and earn real confidence.
  • Obstacles are a necessary part of the work.
  • Resisting the obstacles is running away from them. Don’t do that. Ignoring the obstacles is pretending they don’t exist. Don’t do that. Dealing with the obstacles is the way to go forward. Do that.