The other day a friend at work asked me “How do you do so much?”. He made a similar comment in my annual peer feedback, that he has no idea how I find the time for all that I do. Immediately I thought, “Oh my god. I can’t get anything done!”
I don’t really do that much at work. I have a wife and two kids and pretty much work 9-5 everyday with an hour long lunch break. So what is this guy talking about? Somehow he’s gotten the impression that I’m doing a lot. Or maybe the things that I’m doing are getting his attention.
I’ve put a lot of energy and time into optimizing my work-life balance and getting the most for my time, so I think I have an idea about what’s going on. I usually start the day with 15 minutes of mindful meditation. I eat regularly throughout the day. I re-prioritize my work daily, weekly, monthly and annually against written goals. But most importantly, I simply try to do less.
Doing is the domain of the conscious mind. Doing is about changing the world from its current state into something different and better. It’s about control and risk mitigation. There are literally no end of things that can go wrong. No end of changes to make. No end of things to do. The most that I can hope for is a clear set of priorities and to tackle as much as I can. Abiding in the space of doing is to exist on endless treadmill. It doesn’t bring happiness. It doesn’t bring peace. And counter-intuitively, it doesn’t deliver the best results at work.
My friend genuinely wanted to know how I do so much. And I wanted to give an honest, concise answer. So I said “Stop. Do less. Let yourself have the space to see what’s most important to spend your time on.” That probably sounded like a bullshit answer, but it’s the most honest one I could give. The more time I spend being (not doing) the more I exist in the present moment. The more present I am the less reactive I am. The more I can make balanced and value-based decisions regarding the most important thing to work on. Presence and control over action reduces anxiety which enhances my cognitive abilities. (Or more accurately stated, releases my existing cognitive abilities for deliberate use.) And it all starts with 15 minutes of meditation each day. Time spent being instead of doing.
The goal of meditation is to exercise and develop a separation between impulse and action. The mind is a survival machine. Its purpose is to think of all the things that can go wrong and control them. Our thoughts are words–clips and phrases, often repeated and usually negative. When we react impulsively to our thoughts, we identify with our mind. There is no opportunity to see our thoughts as anything but ourselves. And no chance to disconnect from them.
But something interesting happens when we slow down and stop reacting to our thoughts. We discover that our thoughts are not our entire selves. There is something else, the observer, that can watch thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. There is another, higher self.
At work I try and structure my time to create spaces for being throughout the day. An hour long lunch outside the building is a good start. I walk around between tasks and take frequent coffee breaks. I move my body and draw on the white board. I sit doing nothing for a few minutes before starting each task. I arrive to meetings early or on time to be in the space for a few minutes before other people arrive.
Some days I totally suck at being. I spend the entire day reacting to emails and at the end I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. But some days I spend the whole day calming choosing one task after another and I go home feeling like a rock star. Most importantly, I watch for judgment and let it come and go. Both kinds of days will happen. The goal is to try and notice trends and set the conditions for the good ones.
I’ve stopped keeping a to-do list. I have a comprehensive “opportunity list” for writing down little tasks which I browse like a restaurant menu when I want something to do. And I have a structured list of goals for the day, week, month and year, limited to three entries each–the most important things to do. The underlying message is that not everything can be done. And not everything is essential to do. Do the goals. Look for opportunities. Stay in the present moment.
I’m flattered that my friend thinks that I do a lot. But he’s mistaken. I think he notices the results of doing the most important things well and with my full energy and attention. But I don’t really do that much. So that’s my answer–I do less.