Photo by Paul Dufour on Unsplash

My Singular Focus for 2019

For the past 2 years, I have chosen 3 values to focus on at the beginning of the year. This year, I’ve chosen 1, and I think that will make all the difference.

Every January for the past couple of years, I have chosen 3 values on which to focus during that year, and published a piece about them. It has been my way of tweaking the popular practice of goals and resolutions to something deeper and — hopefully — more effective.

This year, I’m doing things a bit differently. I’m further tweaking my already simplified practice by reducing the list to one single value.

Preface: Why Values?

Many people adopt goals or resolutions at the beginning of each year, and I by no means discourage that practice. Goals are great for giving you something to try to achieve, and thus something to work toward — so they provide motivation and a push toward something. Values serve a slightly different purpose.

While goals can effectively provide motivation and a push, they are by design narrow. They are only effective to the extent that there is a target in mind. Values provide something different than goals: direction and guidance. I have written previously about values, as they compare to goals, but suffice it to say: values are what remains when your goals, passions, and interests change. Values tell you which sacrifices to make, and which goals to pursue in the first place. Values exist at a higher level than goals. So even if it so happens that you end up being unable to achieve your goals, you can at least take solace in the fact that you stuck to your values.

My (Singular) Value for 2019

For the previous years, my chosen values have worked out okay, and I was all set to set up 3 of them for this year. But 2018 was different than the previous 2 years. In 2018, I found the last few months to be marked by a realization that gave me pause. The realization was of a problem that has followed me for quite some time. It became clear that if I was going to do anything to work on myself in 2019, it should revolved around this problem.

My Big Problem in 2018

Late in 2018, I had the privilege of working with two gentlemen that I would now count as friends on a project that they are working to make into a business. I won’t share the details here, except to say the following: it was an intensive correspondence that made me accountable for getting fairly intensive thinking/writing tasks done at a set time each day. I was able to successfully complete all of the tasks by the deadlines, but doing so seemed to take much more effort than I thought was reasonable. It made me think about why that is.

I have never been one for deadlines. I tend to work more slowly — especially when significant thought is required (or seems to be required). But where that gets me into trouble is when I justify procrastination by calling it “taking time to think” — when in reality, I’m stalling; I’m scared.

So as this year ended, I began thinking about why I stall, why I get scared. What I believe it comes down to is that I forget my commitments. I either forget my commitments to others or to my future self. When that happens, I allow my thinking to get taken over by concerns for the present me — the one who doesn’t feel like working now, or is bored by working on what he’s committed to, and craves the momentary pleasures of whatever strikes his fancy at the moment.

As I dug deeper, I came to realize that somewhere along my journey thinking about projects, tasks, goals, and efficiency, there is a simple, foundational truth that I lost track of: you are what you care about. Care is measured by commitment. Commitment is measured by your actions. And though it is rarely acknowledged, thinking is a form of action. So in the end, you are what you spend time thinking about and doing. If there are commitments that you let go unmet while thinking about and doing other things, you end up in a state of disharmony. At the end of 2018, that is where I found myself. So I took 2 weeks off of my day job, and dug into fixing the problem.

My Solution: A Singular Value

As 2019 accelerates into full swing, my focus is not on a set of values or principles, but rather on a single one: commitment.

My focus in 2019 will be on meeting and managing my commitments, which include:

  • commitments I make to others
  • commitments others make to me
  • commitments I make to myself

Those 3 types of commitments will drive my actions in 2 important ways.

The commitments I have already made — rather than my whims and desires — will guide my actions. I will direct my time, effort, and attention toward meeting my commitments first and foremost. That is clear-cut.

Where I feel that I cannot meet said commitments, where even following the 40% rule leaves me expecting to fall short of meeting the commitment, I will manage the commitments I have made. By this I mean, I will reach out to those to whom I have committed, explain that I am unable to meet the commitment as it stands — and ask that they be gracious enough to alter it so that I can meet it. If I feel it necessary, I will ask that they release me from the bond of said commitment entirely, apologizing for having not met it.

The commitments I have yet to make will also guide my actions. I will be very conscious of when I may be making commitments, and pause to ensure that in doing so, I have every intention and expectation of meeting them. This also sounds simple and easy, but you would be surprised how many of us do not do this, and how much damage and difficulty it causes.

The Details: 2 Tools to Work With Commitments

Whatever you aim to change — whether by way of goals, habits, or values — it works best when you have some specific tools in mind that you will use to make it happen. These tools can be physical tools, pieces of software, or simply habits of thought — so long as they do the job of helping you to focus your time and effort effectively toward the goal at hand.

My 2 tools are the following: the 40% rule and the commitment ledger.

The 40% Rule is a way of thinking attributed to ex-Navy SEAL and holder of multiple endurance records David Goggins. For my purposes, the rule is basically that whatever level of effort or stretch you think is your maximum, it’s really only 40% of your maximum.

For me, this is the perfect tool to address my tendency, which is to favor the path of least resistance, to procrastinate on things that don’t seem immediately doable to me, and to call it a day when the resistance reaches a moderately high level. But there have been moments in my life where I have — by chance — taken this 40% view, and managed to do some pretty cool things on some tight deadlines. Because of this, I know that there is something to the 40% rule.

Now, do I think I’m going to start breaking all sorts of records and become a totally different person because of this completely unscientific “rule”? No. But, it will simply serve as a reminder to me — at times when I would normally throw in the towel on meeting a commitment — that I can keep pushing, and stay true to my word. And at the end of day, I’ll feel much better for having expended that extra effort to keep my commitments.

The Commitment Ledger is an idea that I came up with after reading one of my favorite books: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, Stephen Covey talks about the concept of an “emotional bank account” — where we make deposits when we keep our commitments, and make (fairly steep) withdrawals when we break them. He says that making regular deposits and few to no withdrawals is key to building strong relationships — be it with yourself or with others.

To this day, that metaphor resonates with me. Commitments are the currency of relationships, and relationships are the currency of life. So if you’re concerned with living the best life you can, it makes sense to keep track of your commitments. So that’s what I do. I track the commitments I’ve made, and whether or not I keep them or don’t. At this point, it’s a fairly simple list, but it keeps me focused on the things that I am attached to in some way, so I remember which relationships I might be sacrificing when I get distracted from doing the work that I really ought to be doing.

A Brief Epilogue: Thinking Differently About Doing

I have been an enthusiastic adherent to the GTD system for about 10 years now, and I still believe that it is an elegant and helpful system for organizing one’s life and getting more productive. But I have begun to veer slightly away from it — or at least from the way it approaches projects and actions.

For many, it continues to be useful to separate work into goals, projects, and tasks. It allows for a clear hierarchy and common language for those doing knowledge work. But as I have begun to focus on commitments, I have found the terms “goals”, “projects”, and “tasks” to be lacking in the kind of gravity that I think must be expressed by whatever language we use to think and talk about work — be it professional or personal work.

What I mean is that a project is just a set of actions with a desired outcome. Many times, you can be waist-deep in a project and its tasks without being able to clearly identify why the project matters anymore. In many cases, the sunk cost fallacy tricks us into keeping up work on a project when nothing really recommends it. But if the project is a commitment — if someone, or a few people, are counting on it, and that is clear to you as you track the project — that has some gravity behind it.

My commitment in 2019 is to commitment. My focus will be on managing and meeting my commitments.