Resolved: Keep Lists Short

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. If I need to exercise, eat healthier, write more, <insert your own pet personal failings here> and I am waiting for a specific day to occur before I get started, the project is pretty much doomed.

That said, I am definitely a sucker for self-reflection. I practice self-scrutiny with religious fervor and New Year’s Eve is High Holy Day for me and people like me. And so, a few things I must constantly remind myself in order to have a successful 2013:

  • Pay attention.
  • Focus on doing what’s most important and do only those things that help accomplish what’s most important.
  • Say no more easily than you say yes.
  • Delete unnecessary email.
  • Don’t waste anyone’s time, especially your own.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. Impossibly brilliant leaps forward usually result from a sequence of possible, mostly mediocre smaller steps. Do those smaller steps. Do all of them. Do them in order. Do them consistently. Do them until they are done.
  • Keep lists short.

Fully Invested

Some of us are lucky. We have found the thing we love and are doing that thing every single day with every available once of energy, talent and focus.

Some of us are still searching. We are looking for that thing that ignites our passion and sets our mind on fire with the urge to create, build and improve.

For some of us, that thing is our work. For others, that thing sits outside our work. In either case, it is desperately important that we find that thing, pursue it and give over everything we have got.

I get frustrated. I get stuck. And then I see people like Ian Ruhter, fully invested and actively engaged with his gift to the world:

“If you had been searching your whole life for something you love, what would you be willing to sacrifice?” — Ian Ruhter

Note: This post was inspired by Trent Gillis’ post “What Would You Be Willing to Sacrifice?” at the On Being Blog. Take a look.

Ideas Need Action

A few years ago, I had a great idea for a book I wanted to write. I never wrote it.

A few days ago, I watched a movie featuring the two lead characters from the book I never wrote. Turns out, someone else wrote it. And they did a good job.

Now I will probably never write that book because I have seen the characters I had imagined brought to life by somebody else.

I’m not angry or bitter or really even all that surprised. A brilliant idea is only brilliant when brought to life. Ideas need action. There is nothing I can dream that someone else can’t dream. Worse yet, there is probably nothing I have ever dreamed that someone else hasn’t already dreamed as well. Probably better.

And so the trick is to start working and keep working and not stop working until the dream is brought to life. It is a story or a play or a poem or a painting or an invention or whatever. Your idea needs action. Do it now. Someone else is doing it. You need to do it first or you will be watching someone else who has done it better.

Gratitude is a practice

I don’t call myself a Buddhist but there is much about the Buddhist approach to life that feels right to me. I am drawn to the belief that my life, and everything in my life, is practice. Not practice for an abstract, future-tense state of being where everything is perfect and all potential fulfilled. Not time-served through adversity to merit everlasting rest in unseen perpetual bliss.

I’m not talking heaven or nirvana or any other metaphysical end state. I’m talking about right here, right now.

Life as practice means everything I do and everything done to me is raw material. I can work with everything to be more fully present in my life. This, I think, is the point of life. Not worrying so much about future states of perfection at the expense of the present moment. The future is never what I expect nor what I believe I will need it to be. Much better to focus my attention on right now, which is, of course, always exactly as it is.

This is not a recipe for nihilism. This carries me toward selflessness.

If my life is my practice, then I can work with everything and everything belongs. Being happy is temporary. Being unhappy is temporary. Being sad, frustrated, angry, elated are all temporary. These emotional states change. They intensify, and they weaken. They disappear.

Gratitude, however, does not disappear. Gratitude remains constant. Gratitude is not a feeling. Gratitude is a practice.

This time of year my mind habitually produces lists of the great things I appreciate. This is the Count My Many Blessings approach to gratitude. Keep doing this, but don’t stop here.

Gratitude as practice means seeing, recognizing and appreciating those things in my that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or just plain difficult. This stuff is my life, too.

And so gratitude as practice requires a list of not-so-pleasant things that make my life as it is. This does not come naturally to me. This requires a lot of practice.

Here goes.

A Tweetable Mission Statement

Things get crazy and it gets hard stay focused. When there is too much to do, prioritization becomes essential. Prioritization isn’t easy. Everything feels urgent. Everything feels important.

Personally, I struggle a bit with prioritization. I have often read that the core of good time management practice is having a clearly stated personal mission statement. A personal mission statement isn’t a description of the work you do. A personal mission statement is a statement of what you intend to accomplish through the work you do. The mission helps you determine the work. Not the other way around.

I have taken a few passes at a personal mission statement, understanding that this should evolve over time. I recently realized that the frustration I felt at not grasping and attaining clarity with my personal mission was that it had become overly complex. I explained too much.

So here’s my new rule. My personal mission statement must be tweetable, 140 characters or less.

Here’s where I am today:

Be curious and inspire curiosity in others. Learn new things and make it easier for others to learn. Help people share what they learn.

24 words. 135 characters. It explains why I am a librarian. It explains why I get myself involved in things that matter. It explains why I read, write and share ideas. I can’t claim to have realized this goal but I can say it is helping me find clarity of purpose and a little sanity in the ways I choose to divide my time.

More thoughts on Bergman’s “Two Lists”

I’ve spent the day thinking more about Bergman’s “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Day” post and realize I took the easy way out yesterday. The focus list of things I want to achieve is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, it helps to have a list of things that inspire me and carry me forward. That first list helps me better define my own understanding of success.

The second list is essential but far more difficult. Few people, Bergman claims, ever make the second list. The second list isn’t just a list of unpleasant or unimportant distractions to be avoided. The second list is hard because it may well contain things that are important, things that are worthwhile priorities, but which, I am consciously choosing to avoid.

What Bergman is talking about here is opportunity cost. For every opportunity I follow up on, I am trading the time and energy I might have made available for some other worthwhile opportunity. This isn’t an easy choice between things I like and things I don’t like. The second list involves guts. The second list involves disappointing people, letting things go, admitting my limits.

This second list strikes me as a very powerful idea. It actually scares me a little. I can’t quite get my head around it. I know I have a hundred things that belong on that second list but I don’t know how to start naming them.

Here is the generosity of Bergman’s suggestion: this isn’t a facile proclamation of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. This is a public admission that, even if my talents were unlimited (they are not), my time and energy are finite. I can’t do everything I want to do or think I should do. I have to pick and choose.

The second list is about being mindful of one’s limits to avoid the trap of constant reaction. Our mobile, hyper-informed, web-laden lives are brimming with opportunity costs. Activities, projects and notions call for more than our attention. They call for our time. We cannot give them time without sacrificing time from somewhere else.

All of this brings me back to an idea I picked up a few weeks ago about reactionary workflow, the idea that our use of information technologies only make us more productive if we can harness them mindfully to accomplish specific things we wish to accomplish. Otherwise, we spend all our time reacting to other people’s agendas.

Success is spending time making the things you care most about. I’ve got to make these lists. I’m just not sure how to start.