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Readers Respond: Your Stumbling Blocks

Readers Respond: Your Stumbling Blocks
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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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