Can you quickly, and without hemming and hawing, answer the following 2 part question?
What are you doing right now, and how is that contributing to the overarching goals for your life?
If your answer is something like “Well, I’m scrolling through Facebook right now , and, well, I’m not sure about the second part of the question”, then perhaps my message can be of benefit to you .
You see, one of the most insidious sources of anxiety for so many of us is being at odds with who we want to be. But fear not, because we mostly already have an idea of who we’d like to be — we just haven’t made it explicit and front-of-mind yet. But making that idea explicit, and taking action toward achieving it, is a contributing factor in building and maintaining a life that you enjoy living, and that you can be proud to live.
GTD and Thinking in Altitudes
One of the best things I did in my adult life — aside from getting married and having kids — was reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It changed the way that I looked at almost everything I do — life, work, the whole thing. Am I so bold as to call it a miracle? Not exactly, but what are miracles, really?
But seriously, GTD (as the insiders call it) allowed me the head-space to step back and take a look at two important things that need to be looked at: how I get things done that I want to do and why I choose to do the things that I do. David Allen calls them horizons of focus, which represent different levels of abstraction in your life, which require different kinds of thinking to sort out. He uses the analogy of altitudes to explain the horizons:
- The “runway” level is the small projects and their respective tasks that you’ve got going in the short term, like going to the grocery store to pick up coffee and toilet paper (which reminds me…)
- The 10,000 ft. level is the list of projects you’re committed to. It’s everything from getting your oil changed this weekend to that huge project you just took on at work.
- The 20,000 ft. level consists of your roles and responsibilities — the stuff at your job and in your personal life that you are responsible for on an ongoing basis.
- The 30,000 ft. level is the slightly bigger picture. It consists of where you want to be, and what you want to be doing in the next 1 to 2 years. It’s the stuff that’s not represented in the projects or your current responsibilities at the lower two levels — it’s aspirational.
- The 40,000 ft. level consist of your medium and long-term goals for your work and life. Whereas the horizon below this one is about where you want to be with your next few moes, this horizon is about where you want to be after the next few moves. It’s where you really get strategic in your thinking.
- The 50,000 ft. level is the overarching purpose in your life, your big goals, your endgame. What is your life’s work? What do you want your legacy to be? These are the 50,000 ft. questions. When you think at this level, you consider whether or not the goals at the two horizons below — along with the projects laid out currently — align with your lifelong values and visions. You can also ask yourself whether your values and visions have changed. That’s allowed. But it needs to happen separately from looking at your to-do list, or what your current job is. Hence the high altitude.
The thing about these altitudes is that it shows you something very clearly that many of us don’t understand: you can’t be at two altitudes at once. That means you can’t think about what your real values and principles are at the same time as you’re figuring out what needs to be done to finish that big presentation you need to give on Monday. Those are two different things at two different horizons. They require two different kinds of thinking to be effectively addressed. If you don’t respect that, you won’t get useful answers at either level.
Make Time to Climb to Higher Altitudes
When I was forced to think at this 50,000 ft. level, I began to immediately realize three important things. First, I realized that so much of my frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, and irritability came from failing to think at an altitude higher than 10,000 feet. Even at times when I got clear on project objectives and next actions, I was still running around every day without clarity on my bigger goals, objectives, and values. I hadn’t spent any meaningful time at the higher horizons of focus.
The second thing that struck me was that while I thought I knew what I’d find at the 50,000 ft. level when I got there, I was dead wrong. I was amazed by how many of the goals I thought I had were not well fleshed out. Some goals even seemed to clash with each other. What I assumed was clear was not, and it meant I needed to spend some time reflecting at a higher level of thinking.
The third and final thing that I discovered was that so many of the things on my lower 2 horizons, and even the 20,000 ft. level, were just not important from 50,000 feet. To me, that was a clear indicator that a significant change was in order. I had to ensure that the next time I flew up to 50,000 ft., when I looked down at the runway, it all still made sense.
Simply put, if your runway consists of any tasks that don’t help you get to your goals at 40,000 and 50,000 ft., consider taking them off your list. That may sound scary, but that’s the beauty, it’s really not. What’s scarier is this: as long as your day is filled with tasks that don’t contribute to your overarching goals, you will be at odds with your deepest values. As a result, you’ll be stressed, anxious, and left wanting — no matter how many tasks you get done each day. To change that, you need to do some realignment.
The Quick(ish) Fix: Check Your Life’s Outline
It can seem like a big undertaking to go through all of those altitudes — especially when you’re stressed and have so much to do on the runway now. With that in mind, here’s one quick approach to cleaning off your runway, and gaining some peace of mind along the way. It consists of 5 steps, and can be done quickly, if you set aside a few minutes to focus on it.
- Take your current to-do list, in all of its cluttered glory, and hide it from view.
- Take out a new blank list medium (paper or digital, your choice). [note: I have to give a shout out to a web-based platform for this called Workflowy. It is elegant and so very useful for just this purpose. And no, they’re not paying me to say that.)
- List no more than 5 major, long-term goals for yourself — which represent where you want to be 5 and 10 years from now. As a guide, think about what work you want to be doing, and where you’d like to be physically, as well as with whom.
- Take out your original to-do list and place it alongside your new list from step 3.
- For each item from your original to-do list, attempt to place it in the space under one of your major goals on your new list. Skip any items that you can’t place within a minute or two. Cross each item off of your original list as you place it.
After those 5 steps are done, take a deep breath; you’re on your way, but there’s one last step to do. You will have to spend some time with each of the items on your original to-do list that you couldn’t place under a goal on your new list. If you really want to hop on the fast track to enlightenment, crumple up this crowded to-do list and throw it away (along with all copies of it). After all, why are you tasking yourself with projects that don’t comport with your overall goals? That may be a bit too radical for most people, and I understand that.
A less radical step in the right direction would be to simply store this old list in a place out of view and don’t look at it for a week or two. Pay attention to only what’s on your new list, and see if anything from the old list pops up. If it does, then reevaluate where that project fits into your life. Does it really fit into one of your 5 goals, but you didn’t make the connection before? Is there some goal that this project works toward, but you didn’t consider it as a goal before?
Ask these types of questions, and get yourself thinking about the real reason why things are on your radar. But always be prepared to find a way to just sweep things off of your radar, keeping only those things on that contribute to your (now) explicitly stated goals.
Remember: just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should. Be judicious in what you choose to take on; if it doesn’t fit in the outline of your goals, you probably shouldn’t do it. You’ll end up with a lot of things you just aren’t doing, but now, you can feel good about not doing them.