4 steps to focusing on what matters

How to break the 'reactivity' cycle and actually spend time on what you value

👋Hello to the 493 Intentional Wisdom'ers receiving today's email! This week, I've been thinking a lot about priorities—how to set them, and how to stay focused on them—even when the insanity of life is dragging us in the opposite direction. I figured someone else must have this more figured out than me so I've collected advice from some of the best thinkers on the subject of productivity and wrapped it all into something that is (maybe close to?) a cohesive narrative. I'll let you be the judge of that. Enjoy.

The big idea.

🚨Spoiler alert. It’s how we manage our time. And it’s really, really important.

We've got a problem.

And the problem is this: We are not where we want to be.

I'm not talking about geography, although maybe that's true. We are not where we want to be (or think we can or should be) in our careers, in our fitness, in our relationships... you name it. We're not there.

And we're not there because we can't focus.

And we can't focus because there's just too much to do.

Too many emails to respond to. Too many people (big ones and small ones) that require our time. Too many texts. Too many Tweets. Too many buzzes. Too many beeps.

Too many, too many, TOO MANY.

So many responsibilities. So many goals. So many DREAMS.

But we just can't get to them all because we're too damn busy.

Intuitively, we know this is no way to live.

We know that constant busyness and living our lives as reactive games of 'whack-a-mole' do not result in anything even remotely resembling fulfillment.

We already know this. So why don't we change?

Well, frankly, because it's a hard problem.

It's not immediately obvious how to get off this hamster wheel. And even if we figure out a strategy for doing so, it's still probably going to be scary and uncomfortable.

But the great irony is that on the other side of scary and uncomfortable is where we want to be.

So it's worth trying to get there.

But how?  Well, I don't claim to have all the answers, but I've studied the work of the experts in this field, and if I were to start somewhere, it would probably be with these four steps.

1. Determine who you want to be.

If you've read this newsletter for a little while you'll already be aware that I am a huge fan of James Clear, and especially his concept of identity-based habits, which I wrote about here. Basically, to change our behaviors, we need to be crystal clear about WHO we are trying to be, and then back into the habits that such a person would have.

For example, if I want to be a physically fit person, I need to identify what a physically fit person actually does. They probably exercise daily. So if I want to be that person, I need to do that. Pretty straightforward, but also incredibly powerful.

As Clear says: “The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”

And once we start to see ourselves as the embodiment of the identity that we wished to cultivate, the staying power can be impressive.

Again, James Clear verbalizes it well: “The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it. If you’re proud of the size of your biceps, you’ll make sure you never skip an upper-body workout. If you’re proud of the scarves you knit, you’ll be more likely to spend hours knitting each week. Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.”

2. Set your priorities.

Once we answer the identity question, our priorities should naturally flow from that.

If the identity I wish to embody looks like this:

  • I am a great dad and husband

  • I am physically fit

  • I am a well-respected writer

  • I am an effective leader at work

Then my priorities will look something like this:

  • I will prioritize spending quality time with my kids and wife every week

  • I will exercise every day

  • I will publish every week

  • I will put myself in leadership positions and continuously ask for feedback

Of course, I want to be ALL of these wonderful things, but what happens when our priorities conflict? Do we have to choose between work and family? Maybe not. The answer may well lie in how we manage our time.

Yes, the magic is in the scheduling. In setting up systems that make success the path of least resistance. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Before I do, I want to point out that our priorities need not be always thought of as mutually exclusive or in competition with one another. If I prioritize fitness and sleep, for instance, while both take up some of my time, they also should make me more (not less) effective when it comes to my family or work life. So while we often see all of these various identities we wish to embody as balls in the air that we'll inevitably drop, the reality is that success and discipline in one area of life more often than not bleed into other areas of our lives, rather than detracting from them.

Okay. Let's get to scheduling.

3. Make time.

Legendary management consultant and author, Peter Drucker, said: "Until we can manage our time, we can manage nothing else."

The management of our time is that powerful of a force. It trumps virtually everything else. And whether we like to admit it or not, how we spend our time is, in fact, our choice.

Author and graphic designer extraordinaire, Debbie Millman put it this way:
“Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period."

Of course, it's a little bit more complicated than that, but Millman's sentiment is absolutely correct. And "busyness," in the opinion of this humble writer, is an epidemic today. We're so focused on the immediate task at hand—responding to the email, putting out the (metaphorical) fire—and making sure that everyone else knows just how busy we are, that we forget to ask: What should I be doing in the first place?

This is where the magic of scheduling comes in. Our calendars can, and really have to be, our saviors. That means that if we actually intend to be the people we say we want to be, our calendars must be populated with activities that confirm those identities.

Tony Robbins said it well: “If you talk about it, it’s a dream. If you envision it, it’s possible. If you schedule it, it’s real.”

You want to be a writer? You better have time scheduled in your calendar that you will not miss to write. You want to be a great dad? You better have time, in your calendar, that you will not miss, to spend with your kids. And on and on.

The more granular the better. Sound over the top? Maybe, but is there a better way to relieve stress and know that you are on the right track to becoming who you want to be? Not that I know of, at least.

So schedule. Everything.

Oh, and delegate. How much? More than you're doing now is probably a good start. One decision to avoid 1000 future ones.

And that leads me to...

4. Focus.

I know, I know. You've already heard me talk about flow states.

But seriously, to get anything great done, we need focus. Focus means a lot of things—including getting comfortable with saying "no" way more often than we think we should.

And focus also means intentionally creating the conditions where we can do our best work. For me, focus means regular long stretches of hours at a time that are SCHEDULED in my calendar to do work.

If there is anything valuable that I will accomplish, it will come at this time. Everything else I do will be average at best. Whack-a-mole. Reactive. But if I have 2 or 3 hours to focus, I may not do something great, but my gosh, do I increase my chances exponentially.

Charles Duhigg said: "Throughout history, there has only been one killer productivity app, and that has been thinking more deeply."

Schedule the time. To work. To think. To get in shape. To connect with your kids or your spouse. With no distractions. That's when the magic happens. Everything else is filler.

The quality of our systems will dictate how far we go.

If we have any hope of getting out of the all-day, everyday reactive mode, and actually focusing on what we think is important, it will only happen intentionally. Methodically. Through systems and planning and scheduling. It sounds boring, logistical, and obvious. But our calendars don't lie. We are what we do. So make the time to be who you want to be.


That’s it for this week. Thanks as always for reading. Oh wow. About to hit 500 subscribers. This is cool. Appreciate all of your support and for spreading the word!

See you next week. — Greg


✏Extra Credit: Two Pods & a Book

Before you go, I have some sweet goodness for your content diet.

🎙Podcast: Charles Duhigg & Brene Brown — Thanks to my friend, Dana, for recommending this one. One of Duhigg’s quotes from this interview made it into this article, but there are so many more important concepts shared in this conversation including the idea of “psychological safety” being critical for teams to succeed, and of course, that focus is a superpower.

🎙Podcast: Daniel Pink & Tim Ferriss — I took away at least five book recommendations from this one, and decided I need to read pretty much everything Pink has written. Some really valuable ideas in here on decision-making (like the concept of surrogation), reading an audience, and even what times of day are best for certain types of work.

📗Book: Hail Mary by Andy Weir — I don’t think of myself as a big sci-fi guy, but I read (and loved) The Martian, and now Weir is back with another space-based page-turner. When five different people recommend a book to you, you have to check it out. I’m about a third of the way through and… it’s very good.

That’s really it! See you next week! — Greg