Fantasies. Unfounded expectations. Unrealistic goals. We know the negative effect they can have in our personal lives, but we seem to forget once we get to work.

We optimize for happiness at home and misery at work.

We strive to create a perfect living environment, and then neglect our working environment (where we spend most of our conscious time).

We know what’s reasonable and what’s healthy in our homes. We set reasonable goals and we attempt to pursue healthy lifestyles. But once we get to work, we set unachievable goals, cling to unrealistic expectations, and make unhealthy choices. This all leads to a toxic state of negativity and disappointment.

Where’s the logic in having two sets of rules for how we live our lives vs. how we run our businesses?

Especially for us entrepreneurs — who know that in many ways our businesses are our lives. Trying to live by separate principles and practices is no different than removing all of the sugary snacks from your home, and then going into the office break room for a donut (or three) and not even questioning it.

Here’s the Problem

It’s not that we’re trying to run our businesses by a different set of principles, just as we’re not trying to sabotage our diets when we shove that third donut in our mouth. It’s that we (usually) don’t pause long enough to genuinely consider our actions.

It’s a problem of awareness, rather than intentional neglect.

In other words — wake up! As anyone who has tried to implement zen practices into their daily life knows, the lion’s share of any effort comes from reminding yourself to simply be aware. Without an acute sense of awareness (aka, turn off autopilot), most every other effort is futile.

How I’ve Used Zen at Work

It’s through this simple practice of awareness that I’ve recently discovered that the zen ideals I’ve been trying to implement in my personal life actually have a very welcome place in my business life.

1. Forget the Fantasy.

Every industry has a fabricated image of what your company or career is supposed to look like if you’re a card-carrying member. Are you a startup? Are you automatically supposed to work 23 hours a day in a dark room with a case of RedBull. No! And you certainly don’t need funding. You also don’t need to know all the answers of how you’ll scale and what your exit strategy is. If you have an idea you’re passionate about, just start doing it. Start stacking your bricks, one by one.

We have this notion of what a “startup” is supposed to look like, but it’s complete bullshit.

Don’t waste any of your precious time trying to fit into some predetermined mold of what your business should look like. There is no “should”. There is only what you do. So start doing and stop listening to the noise.

2. Question Your Goals.

We set unrealistic goals all the time. But where are we getting these expectations in the first place? Often we choose our goals as a result of looking to the outside at someone else and what they’ve achieved, not inward at what is actually right for us. But there’s no logic in that. What’s right for someone else is almost never what’s going to be right for ourselves. The factors contributing to their successes or their failures will never mirror the factors contributing to our own. So as tempting as it may be to set benchmark numbers based on what someone else has achieved, it’s completely unfounded and can actually be a dangerous path to go down. Be deliberate and honest with yourself when you set goals — especially ones you intend on meeting.

Additionally, reflect on things you’ve achieved that weren’t explicit goals. Celebrate small accomplishments and acknowledge all that you have done, rather than focusing on what you haven’t. Do this regularly.

Here’s a great video I find really thought-provoking. Tim Ferris and Leo Babouta debate the notion of not setting any goals.

3. Coax Change.

This doesn’t mean change your plan every 5 minutes for no reason. What it does mean is actively looking for ways to induce opportunities for change. Question if your previous goals are still the right target to be focusing on. Question if your workflow still makes as much sense as it used to.

Think about what you’re doing and why…and be motivated to change it.

Just like anything else in life, the more you do it, the easier it gets—and the better you get at it! It’s one thing to say you’re agile, flexible, nimble…but it’s quite another to actually be those things. That, in fact, takes effort.

4. Stop Under-Estimating and Start Under-Committing

We underestimate all the time. And we constantly over-commit.

But the result of these actions isn’t limited to ourselves. We let down employees. We disappoint clients. Our bank accounts suffer. And our futures become uncertain.

Over-estimating and under-committing are great ways to lift the burden off our shoulders and give ourselves a chance to execute on beautiful works without unnecessary outside pressure.

5. Remember Your Intention.

Turn off autopilot and really think about what you’re doing at any given time during the day. Any situation, no matter how big or small, you have a reason for being there,for doing what you’re doing at that moment. You have a reason for writing that email, for calling that meeting, for saying those words.

Remember your intention as often as you can. Set regular reminders on your phone. I promise you, without a doubt, you’ll be more skillful in your actions. You’ll be more engaged in what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. And ultimately, you’ll be more pleased with your outcomes.

“What you do today is important, because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.”

Remember, just like anything else you want to get better at in life or at work, you have to put in the effort. You are the only one in control of your own happiness. So do the hard work. And see the awesome results.

- - -
If you have any other ideas, techniques, or thoughts on bringing zen ideals into the workplace I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to tweet me:
@JoelleSteiniger.