Thriving in the midst of tension

On today’s episode: thriving in the midst of the tensions between our time, ideas, and focus.

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Show Notes

I’ve read a lot about productivity.

Methodologies, best-practices, secrets, habits, etc.

And honestly, I love it. I eat this stuff up. I want to learn and grow, and I can seriously geek out over these subjects.

But at the same time, I want to throw it all out the window. Not because these teachings are wrong or bad, but because there is a bigger picture. There is a deeper foundation.

Focus in and of itself is not the end goal. The goal should be to provide value back to the world. To do work that matters. To create something meaningful. But there are things which can help us to do this, but none so much as our own internal commitment to do work that matters.

* * *

So, the two biggest takeaways I’m hoping my book will communicate are this:

  1. What it means to have honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
  2. How to thrive in the midst of tension.

When I say “the power of a focused life” I’m not talking about minimalism, GTD, or life hacks.

I’m talking about a commitment to intentional living. But we cannot live with intention if we don’t know where the heck we’re headed, what the heck we want, or how the heck to get there.

I’m all for minimalism, spending less, owning less, having a trusted system for managing tasks and projects, doing less busy work, and routinizing the trivial parts of our life.

But The Power of a Focused Life isn’t about methodology. It isn’t a recipe for de-stressing your life. It isn’t a map to doing yoga on the beach. It’s about thriving even though our lives are crazy and messy and we’re tired and why are my kids throwing baskets full of train tracks down the stairs when I’m trying to record a podcast?

It’s not about getting rid of every distraction and relieving every stress so we can do our best creative work. It’s about doing our best creative in spite of our propensity to distraction and even though we’re scared.

* * *

I have asked a lot of people what their greatest challenge is when it comes to focus. And I’ve gotten so many amazing, honest, and challenging answers ranging from distractions to ADHD to depression to fear to incessant interruptions to a total lack of clarity, and more.

You know what my biggest challenge is when it comes to focus?

Life.

Maybe that’s a cheating answer, but it’s true.

Passion. Boredom. Frustration. Anxiety. Excitement. Unexpected emergencies. A bad night’s sleep. Not enough coffee.

This is life, right?

I know we can calm our anxiety and relieve our stress. And we can channel our passion and excitement. But the tension — the messiness — that is just the raw inherent nature of life never goes away.

ESPECIALLY if we are trying to do something meaningful.

True productivity is not about solving the tension that exists between our time, our ideas, our emotions, our fears, and our focus. True productivity has to be be about thriving in the midst of those tensions.

* * *

In my past job I would regularly work 60-70 hours a week, and there were many weeks when I’d work 80 hours. I did this for 3 years. Though the hours I worked were neither healthy nor sustainable, I most certainly loved the job. I had an amazing team and I loved our community and the work we were doing was meaningful and I was learning so much.

But when my wife and I got pregnant, my whole perspective on life changed. I saw things differently. Choices which once seemed ridiculous now seemed necessary. I knew I had to quit my job and start my own business.

There were a lot of reasons I quit. And of course, one of the obvious ones being that there was no way I could be a present father in the way I wanted to be while working 70+ hours each week.

If you’re working 70 or more hours in a week, something is broken. Either the system is broken, the leadership is broken, your priorities are broken, or your boundaries are broken. Or, most likely, it’s a little bit of everything.

I didn’t mind the long hours because I loved what I was doing. But I knew it wasn’t good for me.

But even after I quit that job and began working from home for myself, I still had (and have!) the tendency to work long hours. I’ve been working for myself since 2011, and it still takes diligence for me to keep my working hours at 40 per week. I could easily work from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I pass out from exhaustion at night. Then wake up, wash, rinse, and repeat every day of the week.

Hi. My name is Shawn, and I’m a workaholic.

Just as an alcoholic is still an alcoholic even after he’s been sober for 20 years, so too can a workaholic be an addict even if he has the self-control to keep his work week to 40 hours.

What are workaholics running from?

Or, to make it personal: what am I afraid of?

I’m not trying to build a business so I can retire on an island and drink fancy drinks. My aim in business is to build a foundation where I can do the most meaningful work of my life.

So I know that in part, my propensity to work long hours is because I love the work I’m doing. I have many active projects right now and I’m excited about all of them. It’s hard to take a break from something when all the pieces are fitting into place and you’re excited about it and feeling motivated to work on it.

But I also know that my propensity to work long hours is rooted in fear. Over the years, there have been many times when I worked a 10- or 12-hour day despite my complete lack of excitement or motivation about a project.

  • I’m afraid that my small online business will all fall apart if I step away for too long.

  • I fear that my time spent resting or reading or playing with my sons is is keeping me from doing something else that I should be doing.

  • Heck, I even fear that an important email is waiting for me in my inbox.

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve learned enough to know not to give in to these fears. I don’t let my fears and doubts make the decisions. But that doesn’t mean they go away.

There are days when I’ll backslide into workaholism because I’m trying to cope with the fear and to relieve the tension. The workaholic needs to take care of all this busywork so he can “finally” have the space he needs to create something meaningful.

But there is no such thing as “finally”. We never arrive at “finally”.

Do you want to know the secret to stress-free living? Well, maybe it’s not a secret, but I don’t ever hear anyone talking about it. And, I’m sure there are more secrets, too. But this is the one that matters to me right now.

The secret is this: settle the fact that if you want to do anything meaningful there is going to be resistance.

Resistance doesn’t mean you’re bad at keeping an organized task list. Resistance means you’re plowing new ground — you’re doing work that matters.

If you want the resistance to go away, then quit providing value to those around you.

But who wants to do that?

Instead of trying to remove the tension and the resistance, learn to thrive in the midst of it.

If you show me an artist who is consistently putting out meaningful work, then I’ll show you someone who is courageous. She may not be a productivity master or a minimalist guru — her desk is probably a total mess (so is mine). The reason she is consistently putting out meaningful work is because she’s willing to show up every day, in spite of her fears and the tensions of her messy human life. She is making the time and the sacrifices necessary to show up.

* * *

Guess what? I’m not a productivity master nor am I a minimalist guru.

And that’s why I’m writing this book about living a focused life.

Precisely because I don’t have all the tensions solved.

And because I don’t, I believe that makes me especially qualified.

For example: My work day schedule can be messy. My garage is cluttered because I’ve been ignoring it all winter long. I was 30 years old before I figured out how to budget my money. My Jeep needs an oil change and a car wash.

Did you know that I am super bad at email? I haven’t had a zero inbox since since the ‘90s. I drop things through the cracks all the time. But that’s okay — inbox zero isn’t required for me to pursue my best creative work.

Guess what else?

  • I’m bad at getting up when my alarm goes off.

  • I’m bad at scrubbing my to-do list.

  • There are several projects around the house that I’ve been putting off.

  • When I’m excited about a project I’m working on, I’ll just let everything else fall through the cracks. I get so single minded it’s all I can think about and I’ll ignore so many other important things.

  • I check Twitter and email and other stats more often than I want to.

  • If there’s a wrench in my day — like running out of coffee — I feel like the whole day is wasted and I can’t get back into a groove.

Yet despite all of these things — despite my messy life and my general propensity to be distracted — I’ve managed to make time to write every day. And guess what else? I just got an email from a long-time reader who thinks the writing I’ve been doing lately is the best work I’ve done yet.

You don’t have to solve the tensions of life before you can create something of value.

Your life probably isn’t half as messy as mine. Or maybe it’s twice as messy. But messiness isn’t the point.

The tagline of my book is this: “Living without regret in the age of distraction.”

It’s not “living undistracted in the age of distraction.”

Nor is it “Top ten weird productivity life hacks that will also make you a more attractive person.”

When I say living without regret I mean not quitting. I mean thriving in the midst of the tension.

Because at the end of the day, your best creative work doesn’t come from the proper environment, it comes from your commitment to show up every day.