Your Stumbling Blocks

About 10 days ago, I accidentally posted a question I had meant to schedule for later this month, and as I’m coming to expect, your responses really got me thinking. The question was simple: What one big productivity block do you most struggle to overcome? But the issue it raises — how can we keep ourselves on track? — is really complex, and speaks directly to why a site like lifehack.org exists and continues to attract a daily readership in the six figures.

We talk a lot about goals, motivation, and self-development. All of these things share a common root: desire. The desire to fulfill our destinies, maybe, or to attain for ourselves something that’s missing, whether that’s security, luxury, meaning, or even just a sense of completion and closure.

Planning our own absence

But things get in the way of us attaining the things we desire. Sometimes those things are external factors — a harsh government, a poor economy, bad business choices by our employers. But much of the time, what keeps us from fulfilling our desires is internal. Some things we have no control over — health problems, for instance. Boris left a particularly touching comment last week:

I do a very good job at managing most activities related to my business. However, no matter how well I planned… I have chronic health problems that get in the way very often.

I don’t have chronic health problems, but even something as simple as a cold or a toothache can derail all my planning and send me into a tailspin of depression and self-doubt – I can only imagine what it must be like to experience that on a regular basis.

The thing with health issues is that, although we can work really hard to keep ourselves fit, we are always under the threat of a sudden flare-up, whether of a chronic illness or a new infection or injury. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we are captains of our own destinies, our bodies can betray us, laying us low in a matter of moments.

The answer to this lies, I think, in planning. I’ve been strongly inspired by Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Work Week. Ferriss devotes a large part of the book to describing systems that continue to work even when we’re not there to run them. The point, for Ferriss, is to allow us the time to gallivant around the globe in search of tango lessons or extreme sporting events (or, I suppose, enlightenment), but the lesson applies to those of us worried about a sudden illness knocking us out of commission for a week, a month, or a year. Set up systems that require as little attention as possible, so you can commit your time to activities that serve your self — whether that means spending six months seeking the latest thrill or six months recovering from an injury.

Strengths, Focus, and Vision

There are also internal forces that act as stumbling blocks that we do have some degree of control over, or that are within our power to change. Tom Gray says his biggest stumbling block is not playing to his own strengths:

I spend too much time working on things that would be better delegated or farmed out and not enough time in activities where I shine.

Kevin X says he struggles to maintain focus, keeping his attention on the things he’s doing instead of the things he wants to do when he’s done:

When I am on one project, I start to think about another. When I move on to a new part of the day, I find myself thinking about something in the past. Even when I am trying to sleep (the best time of the day) my mind wanders so much and I think of great new ideas (which I have to quickly write down) or of the past day and the next day.

And gstar writes of the importance — and difficulty — of keeping one’s vision in mind:

maintaining the “big picture” of where you are ultimately trying to go. I’ve heard it said, “Take care of the details, and the rest will take care of itself” – How do you narrow down what those details are, while not losing track of the overall goal?

What these three things have in common is a lack of self-reflection — taking the time to sit down with one’s self and really thinking about who one is and what one should be doing. This is, I realize, a tall order, and one that Western society, at least, doesn’t make much space for.

Which is why it’s so crucial that we make that space ourselves, that we insist on the time to explore our own needs and desires. This isn’t touchy-feely, hippie stuff — this is what it takes for us to realize our fullest potential, and in that light, it’s what makes us human. We need time to figure out what are strengths are and how best to develop and use them, time to make sure that the things we are doing are really the best use of our time, and time to see our lives in the big-picture view so we can work out where we’re headed and why we’re headed that way.

I think it’s telling that virtually every productivity guru, every organization coach, and every successful leader advocates some sort of ritualized self-awareness time, whether that’s a yearly retreat, daily quiet time, or a weekly review. What they don’t tend to say is how hard it is to really think about this stuff! To discover your strengths it’s necessary also to think about your weaknesses, about ways you can improve, about things you’ve done wrong and things you need to do better. To think about your vision it’s necessary to escape all the myriad demands on us to perform, produce, and prepare. To really focus we need to have something worth focusing on — and finding that special thing can be a lifelong calling.

Instead, we procrastinate. Marina says, “[My stumbling block] is always waiting until a “better” time to write that book/blog post, launch that program, etc.” Brian Yuong says, “Any time I hit a complex section of a project my mind tells me I could be more productive if I shift to another project that has been on the back burner for awhile.” Tracey says, “I put off things that I find unpleasant, such as returning phone calls, and in doing so make tasks much more difficult than if I’d just done them in a timely manner…” And on and on.

Why are so many of us working on things that either don’t make best use of our strengths, don’t engage us enough to hold our attention, or don’t advance us towards any vision of what our lives should be like? I realize there are things we have to do to pay the bills, take care of our responsibilities to family, friends, and society, or just get through from day to day, but they shouldn’t be the majority of our actions!

We need to take these moments of hesitation, these “procrastinable” tasks, as warning signs that we’re running off-track — or, worse, stalled out. And when too much of our lives is pushed to the “back burner”, we need to see that for what it is: as a sign that change is necessary.

For most of us, that doesn’t mean shaving our heads and running off to Angola to herd sheep. It means making time — not finding it, but making it — to recapture our strengths, focus, and vision. Figure out one thing that needs to change, and change it. Repeat as necessary, until life is on the front burner.

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