It’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of any productivity system, all the fiddly little bits that fit together just so. But how does everything you do add up to a life? Or does it?
Thinking about the big picture too much can get in the way of our day-to-day lives – you don’t want to be dreaming about your life 20 years from now while you’re trying to get across a busy intersection with a broken traffic light! – but don’t let your day-to-day life get in the way of thinking about the big picture. When your focus is always on the next action, you can easily next action yourself into a dead-end, with no idea how you got there and no room to turn around.
The goal of any productivity system, then, isn’t to keep you focused on the tasks in front of you, it’s to allow you to direct your focus to all the aspects of your life when they need focus. Both the telephoto focus of getting work done and the wide-angle focus of sorting out who your are, what you’re doing, and where you want to be headed are important if you’re going to make any sort of life for yourself.
The View from On High
David Allen uses the metaphor of a plane in flight to explain the need to shift our focus to the big picture from time to time. When the plane’s on the runway, the world is a-bustle with motion: the flight crew are running all their pre-flight checklists and securing everything for take-off, the ground crew is fueling the plane and loading the baggage, everyone’s milling about just trying to meet their schedules.
Once the plane takes off, though, things calm down. As you look out the window, the jumble of buildings, trees, and roads resolves itself into a grid of streets and city blocks. Individual buildings fall away as the plane climbs higher and higher, until the city itself blurs into a part of the landscape. From cruising altitude, the hubbub on the ground is invisible, and you can relax, get comfortable, and watch the world roll along under the plane.
This is what Allen calls “the 50,000-feet view”, where next actions and contexts drop away and instead you can think about the meaning of it all – what gives your life purpose. Where are you headed, and what will your life look like when you get there? Is it too late to change your itinerary and take a different connecting flight, to destinations un-thought-of before now? And when are they coming around with the peanuts, anyway? (OK, maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far…)
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It
The 50,000-feet view is where you focus on, in a word, your mission. It seems odd to most people to have a mission. Corporations have missions, usually some BS gobbledigook about “synergizing this” and “maximizing that”. Superheroes have missions, some naive nonsense about truth, justice, and the be-leotarded way. 28th level half-elf war mages have missions, usually something about rescuing the Night Queen from the clutches of the evil Tralfamadora and rebuilding the broken spires of the Moon Palace..
But you? Do you have a mission?
It bears thinking about. It doesn’t have to be fancy or esoteric – this is your life we’re talking about! In plain language, what are you here for? What is it that, looking back from your rocking chair on the porch, in between hurling abuse at neighborhood kids whose danged ball keeps landing in your hedges, what is it that will make you feel you’ve lived a life worth living?
A mission makes a useful mantra, a little ditty to look in the mirror Stuart Smalley-style and chant to yourself when things are looking bleak, but it’s also a test,a yardstick against which to measure your actions. Whenever you take on a project, ask yourself, “Is this going to bring me closer to accomplish my mission?” When things get bad and you start to think about quitting, remembering how whatever you’re working on advances your mission will help give you the determination you need to get the job done.
What Matters to You?
To figure out your mission, you need to know what really matters to you. Does your job matter? Your favorite TV show? Who matters most in your life? Whose expectations matter most? Could you live knowing that Uncle Frank thinks you’re a mess-up just like your dad, or that Granma Millie hates seeing you wasting your potential?
This seems like an easy question, but it’s not – not if you’re truly honest with yourself. It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that the thing you’ve done for the last X years of your life doing really doesn’t matter all that much to you after all – that it might have been the cats pajamas when you were 24 but at 34 seems like a dead-end. Or that the person you’re engaged to, married to, or living with isn’t really your One True Love. Or that you never really enjoyed reality shows, you just watched because there was nothing else on.
People will do just about anything to avoid answering these questions and facing their lives head-on, because the answers often suggest that we need to make massive changes, and that means work. And not just “carry this box” work, but Sisyphean labor – rolling the huge stone of our lives uphill with nothing to do when it comes plummeting down from the summit except brush ourselves off and try again. But as hard as it is, asking the tough questions is the key to a life well-lived.
Prepare for Takeoff
Like I said, you can’t spend every minute of every day with your head in the clouds, taking in the 50,000-feet view. Making an appointment to spend a few days with yourself isn’t a bad idea, though, and revisiting that appointment every year or two is a pretty good idea, too.
You might not need a few days – maybe when you let go of all your day-to-day worries for a bit, you’ll discover that your unconscious mind has been mulling these issues over for quite a while. But usually you will need a good chunk of time, first to clear your mind (go hiking or something), then to really think things through. A weekend is probably appropriate, but don’t fret if you can’t find the time – take whatever time you can get, lock yourself up somewhere quiet, and do what you can – remember that you’re not writing anything in stone, you’re just trying to grab ahold of the things that give your life meaning. You have a whole lifetime to revise.