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Six strands for success

Six strands for success

The best way to make a rope strong is to make it by weaving many strands together. The best way to create a strong, satisfying pattern for your life and career is to weave together the six different strands that make up a complete career pattern.

Success isn’t a matter of completing each strand come what may. It’s the balance between the strands that really counts, constantly shifting between them over time. Which is more important today? Which should come first and get most focus now?

  • Strand 1 is formulating a vision for your life and career: a dream of what you could and should become. You need to look way beyond beyond your current life pattern and envision an overall sense of purpose and direction. That’s the trouble. It can seem so insubstantial and vague that many “practical” people dismiss it as nothing more than day-dreaming. Equally, many others enjoy the process so much that they never do anything else.

    Without an overall direction and a clear set of values, you’ll be reduced to making continual, ad hoc decisions. There will never be a clear pattern, leading to a desired life and career goal; everything will be decided on the spur of the moment. You can call it flexibility, spontaneity, or whatever you want, but the truth is that, if you haven’t decided on a long-term direction, just about any direction will do. And if that direction changes constantly, pushed this way and that by random events, why should it matter?

  • Strand 2 needs to take that vision and turn it into a strategy: a set of long-term actions, goals, and personal choices. Your emphasis shifts from what you want from your life and career to deciding what you need to do to make those dreams come true—setting a medium to long-term pathway to deliver sustainable change and fulfill your hopes. Many people are so excited by their vision of the future that it seems almost sacrilegious to come down from the mountain and to apply commonsense and reality to what it’s going to take to turn that vision in real events. They fondly imagine that the power of the vision alone—some magical power of intention and longing—is going to make it all happen without the humdrum business of creating plans, making choices, finding ways around obstacles, and generally doing what needs to be done until the goal is reached.

    Every few years, some variant on the power of positive thinking hits the bookshelves: some fresh take on the mystical notion that intention alone can change your life. It’s snapped up by dreamers hungry for an escape from the boring realities of continual effort and setbacks. Does it work? Only to the extent that it provides some initial enthusiasm and stimulus. After a while, reality steps back in and the fuss dies down . . . ready to make a millionaire of another guru with the same idea in fix years or so.

  • Strand 3 is having the courage to make the actual changes needed to turn your strategy (which is, after all, just a set of broad ideas and goals) into actions. When people get stuck with Stand 2 and don’t move on to Strand 3, they spend their lives creating strategy after strategy. Maybe many of them—perhaps even all of them—are great; full of exciting thoughts and limitless possibilities. Yet none will ever become reality, since their creator is stuck inside his or her head, polishing ideas and doing very little else. In the end, all the strategizing becomes a substitute for action.

    That’s often the fate of people who buy piles of self-help books and programs. They listen and read—and listen and read some more—attend seminars and talk excitedly about the latest ideas for getting your life together. But it never gets beyond talk and reading. It’s more fun to consider possibilities than risk disappointment by trying any of them in an organized way.

  • Strand 4 therefore points to the need for establishing good habits. Habit allows you to do things again and again, making some parts of your life and work predictable and sustainable. It isn’t glamorous. It won’t feel creative or spontaneous, but there’s not much profit in behaving erratically. Many important aspects of life take time to deliver the goods. Education is one. Building credibility is another. If you act like many people do, starting off in a heady state of euphoric enthusiasm only to run out of steam after a fairly short time, your career will be made up of nothing more than a series of great possibilities that didn’t work out. Strand 4 demands building good life habits and making sure that you stick with them for as long as may be needed.
  • Strand 5 is accepting day-to-day responsibility for what happens in your life. It’s part of the basics of managing any career. If it’s neglected, the end will come very quickly. If it’s easy to skip over Strand 5 in favor of more exciting, visionary activities, it’s even easier to try to hand off that responsibility to someone else—usually by following the herd and opting for whatever is fashionable instead of choosing your own, unique path.

    Doing what everyone else does—or expects—easily becomes a way of avoiding responsibility. There are many risks in creating your own way through life. Not the least is that you have to give up blaming others for any setbacks or failures. No whining. No trying to slide out of being accountable for your choices. You need to stand up and accept that it’s your life and you have to be the one who makes it go where you want. No more excuses.

  • Strand 6 is focusing on the present. It’s too easy to fix your mental gaze somewhere in the future and miss what is happening now. Yet now is, ultimately, all there is to enjoy and experience. Now is the only time that you can do anything. You need to pay attention to doing what needs to be done now, when it’s needed. If this strand is weak, you’ll likely spend more time thinking about what you ought to do than doing anything. You’ll keep putting things off to some future date—when it may well be too late. No matter how innovative or determined you are, if Strand 1 is neglected, you probably won’t achieve much. There is only now. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has yet to arrive. Now is when your life is happening.
  • Just as the strongest rope is woven from the greatest number of strands, so the strongest and most effective choices for your life and career include all the strands given here. Any that you miss out will weaken your decisions and lower your possibility of success. Don’t be a dreamer, stuck with only Strands 1 and 2. Don’t be a lemming, rushing after everyone else. Don’t be a groupie, constantly looking for the next bandwagon to jump on. Work steadily, weaving all the strands together, and whatever you create will have real strength and staying power.

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    Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

      , is now available at all good bookstores.
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      Last Updated on July 8, 2020

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

      This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

      Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

      When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

      This is why setting priorities is so important.

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      3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

      There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

      1. Eat a Frog

      There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

      Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

      When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

      2. Move Big Rocks

      Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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      You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

      If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

      For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

      To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

      In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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      3. Covey Quadrants

      If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

      Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

      1. Important and Urgent
      2. Important and Not Urgent
      3. Not Important but Urgent
      4. Not Important and Not Urgent

        The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

        Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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        You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

        Getting to Know You

        Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

        In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

        These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

        More Tips for Effective Prioritization

        Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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