The Before 2020 List

A few years back, when the weather wasn’t conducive for playing kubb outside, I started a mindful meditation practice. It quickly provided me much the same mind calming benefit indoors as kubb does outdoors.

After steadily building a daily practice for about a year, my schedule shifted, my priorities shifted. Today my practice is much less frequent.

In fact, my practice is currently a bi-weekly guided meditation class at my neighborhood gym. Though I can (and have) successfully maintained my practice solo – having an appointment involving other people at a specific time suddenly makes it An Important Meeting.

There’s the added benefit of a yogi focused on keeping it fresh through a new technique or suggestion. I always leave refreshed, more centered, and more proactive.

It’s easy to allow each day to bleed into the next. Easy to commute into work on Monday and commute home on Friday without knowing quite sure what happened in-between. You probably replied to some emails and sat in some meetings.

But what did you accomplish?

It’s not that you or anyone else is disappointed in your work. You’re actually moving things forward quite nicely.

It’s just…

It’s just that it you feel like you’re only reacting, just putting out fires, never moving the big, important work forward. Never quite being able to work on the most exciting projects, or solving the most irritating problems. Always feeling behind – not to mention running late. Or, not quite sure where to best apply your energy.

In working with the most ambitious, creative, and driven professionals, I’ve found they continually struggle with two things;
– blocking off time for planning their work (and keeping that commitment to themselves) and

– ensuring all their most important commitments have an appropriate place on their calendar within the next two weeks.

If there was one key technique, one key habit providing the benefits of the How To Use a Calendar program in concentrated form it would be The Guided Bi-Weekly Preview.

Clients have asked me what they need to get the most out of The Guided Bi-Weekly Preview. Perhaps counter-intuitively, you need two things:

– Some sense of all your current commitments, their milestones and deadlines.

– At least one trusted list. This list isn’t a ‘To Do’ list or even a ‘Someday Maybe’ list- it’s far too exciting, far too inspiring to include ‘vacuum stairs’. It’s an ‘Won’t It Be Amazing When I’ list. This list is for all the things ‘You’re too busy’ for, all those things the resistance is keeping you from.

A ‘Bucket List’?

Um, sure, if you must be pessimistic about it. I prefer “Before 2020” for that begins to answer When?. The 3-5 year time frame is long enough to dream outside of your daily banality, yet short enough to be see the end. Whether or not it’s a Bucket List really depends on where you’re at in 2020 🙂

I don’t care if it’s currently empty. I care that it’s where you go when you’ve have an idea for something fitting that description. I care that during your Weekly Preview you ask, “What’s one small step I can take next week?”

For an extremely limited time, just Fri Sep 16th in fact, I’m offering four 1-on-1 sessions of my Guided Bi-Weekly Preview for just $250.

Estimate 2x the 1st Time

Over the weekend, I replaced a broken bulb in my van’s tail lights.

The van told me which one was broken. A quick YouTube search told me how to fix it, and a quick Google search told me the part number.

Easy.

So, I headed to my neighborhood auto parts store and picked up a 2 pack of bulbs.

I promptly swapped out both bulbs – just to make sure. It took minutes.

Until I discovered that I replaced the wrong side – and had somehow lost the original bulbs.

So, back to the auto parts store for another 2 pack.

Which was a nice reminder to: Always estimate 2x the 1st time.
– always pick up 2x the parts you think you’re going to need. For you’ll either use them on this project, use them on another project, or be able to easily return them. All are fine.
– always estimate 2x the time you think you’ll need. For you then you won’t feel rushed and you’ll be able to accommodate any unexpected ‘discoveries’ and you’ll either have plenty of time to test and clean up, you’ll need the time to finish the core task, or you’ll have just found time for something else. All are wins.

Sure, in the moment it feels like excess. Too many parts, too many tools, too much time. Once you factor in unknown unknowns (and considering this is the first time – there will be lots) that excess is just the price of learning. The price of solving the problem calmly and mindfully and successfully.

A second $6 pack of light bulbs is a small price to pay to not have to run across town once more.

Measuring Growth in Your ‘Return on Lifestyle’ Business

In almost all cases, growing a business means one of the following:
– ever-increasing revenues
– ever-increasing share price
– ever-increasing customer count
– ever-increasing headcount

These are the metrics reported in the business section. These are the numbers that get everyone – the leadership team, the shareholders, early investors, the office space owners, the entire supporting ecosystem of vendors – of a given organization excited. Both when these numbers are going up and when they’re going down. Though, it’s only defined as growth when they’re going up.

I say in almost all cases, because the vast majority of the companies you and I interact with everyday are the kind of organizations measured by this definition of growth – both internally and externally. Why? Because that was their strategy from early on. Whether because the founders originally intended the company to be huge or because that’s how the investors and shareholders see a path to an exponential monetary return. The intention was to create a company as an asset of ever increasing value, that could be – eventually – sold for a profit.

Just because this is the most obvious definition of growth, it doesn’t mean it’s the only definition of growth. Nor does it mean it’s the right definition for your organization. Especially if your entire full-time staff is you (you’re a freelancer, solo practitioner, independent consultant, etc). Maybe, you have one other partner with 50% ownership. Maybe you’re the sole owner of a 10 person firm. In all these cases, your company is one of the thousands of extremely small companies. In all these cases the above definition of growth is toxic and cancerous. Especially if you have kids. Doubly-so if you’re the primary bread-winner for your family. This definition of growth will destroy your business and your most-treasured relationships. Maybe even you.

Yes, growth is just as valuable as it is to companies 10x, 100x, and 1000x your size, but what that growth looks like, is very, very different.

Growth here is more like maturity;
– an ever-increasing clarity in identity
– an ever-increasing in focus on doing your one thing amazingly well
– an ever-increasing service to that one tight niche you’re expert in,
– ever-chipping away at the waste around it.

Growth as a ruthless elimination of the fat in your business, through both automation and saying “No” frequently.

Despite the hype and the catchy title, this is what Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week is actually about. A ruthless elimination of the low value effort so you can maximize your 164-Hour Life Week.

Low value work is all the stuff that doesn’t excite you about your work. It’s up for you to decide precisely – but it’s likely paperwork, administrative stuff, maintenance stuff. All of this stuff can be automated (via a technology wholly or some sort of Mechanical Turk) or simply ignored.

Don’t want to answer the phone? There are a number of services that will do that for you.
Same for your email inbox.
Same for most every aspect of your business.

You’re not trapped by the painful parts of your business. You’re not trapped by some definition of What a Business Is Supposed To Be. It’s your business. You own it. Take control of making it serve you.

For example, about five years ago, I stopped billing my services by the hour. Hourly billing is terribly common for even the smallest professional services firm. Some clients insist on it for low level positions. Even early in my career, I found it distracted me from better serving my clients. In short, it was waste in my business. Where as some people would find a better time-tracking system, I just said, “No, I don’t do business this way”. My annual revenues since making the change have been about the same as before, so from a big company ‘growth’ measure – it was a horrible move. Yet, it has freed up so much of my time, freed up so much of my headspace, dramatically improved my client relationships, and how I feel about my work. Positive growth.

Professional service firms with fewer than 10 full-time employees are – in the most positive and fulfilling definition of the word – lifestyle companies. Their primary function is to deliver, not an ROI, but a ROL – Return on Lifestyle.

Some Ways to Measure ROL Growth:
– The business fully covers your health, dental, and retirement accounts.
– Every quarter you’ve fulfilled some crazy life goal (run a marathon, vacation in an exotic location, write a book).
– The absence of drama in your daily life is palpable.
– Rush hour traffic is more curiosity than annoyance.
– Your weekly calendar is an even mix of work, family, community, and personal commitments.
– There’s not a single active, bullshit project taken “because we need the money.”
– You’re in the best mental & physical shape of your life.

Do these metrics mean your business is somehow less of a business than those traded on the stock markets?

Yes.

Because it is.

Across every GAAP measure. The amount of paperwork you’re compelled to file is a small fraction of what they have to file. The problems your business has are a small fraction of theirs.

Unlike these businesses, your business evaporates the moment you get hit by a bus.

So what? Embrace it. Commit to it.

It doesn’t mean your business can’t have a disproportionately positive impact on the world. It can – and that positive impact will drive your demand.

If your business is so in demand that you might need to hire help. First do these things:
1. Raise your fees. (See #4)
2. Declare when you’ll take on a new client project, just like an in-demand hotel (e.g. “We’re not booking for Feb 2017”). Hold firm.
3. Be exponentially more selective.
4. Work one less day a week.
5. Stop taking on new clients or projects.

I’ve seen too many very small businesses interpret a spike in short-term demand for a long-term trend (hiring spree, move to a huge new office) only to be in a position of unwinding all of that a few, short months later. These five strategies have a far higher ROL than presuming the demand is sustainable. In fact, they actually test resilience of the demand. That doesn’t mean they’re easy strategies to employ – they’re just far easier strategies than growing your overhead.

Your Calendar is Your Humanity

Before I understood how to use a calendar, I had blank, 3*5 index cards. I’d carry a fat stack of them, bound with a bulldog clip, in my messenger bag. I’d use them for everything; idea capture, task capture, ad hoc business cards, inspirational quotes, everything. One discreet notion per index card, detailed specifics on the back if needed.

When it was time to work, I’d go through the binder, find the card with the best combination of urgent & enjoyable and I’d get started. The first step:

Place the selected index card between keyboard and monitor.

That way, when I got distracted, when I forgot what I was doing, when my attention was pulled away, I would just look down at the card to get back on track.

This worked really well, and if you find getting back into a task after being pulled away difficult, I highly recommend the visual reminder of an index card.

Notice however, none of the items I selected were ever sufficiently compelling to keep me from being distracted, either by internal or external stimuli. I was always looking for something more urgent, more interesting, more exciting, than the card I selected. Which meant every task took longer than it should.

Then, I determined my distractibility was a problem. I turned first to naps then to meditation to tame my monkey mind and identify what was actually important. I reconfigured my office to be more comfortable and enjoyable to work in. I increasingly said ‘No’ to the small ball work the seems so prevalent. All of this helped evaporate my guilt of disconnected for minutes (hours! weekends!) at a time. Simultaneously, the number of nights and weekends I spent on client projects was reduced to zero.

It turns out, most everything doesn’t need to happen immediately – if at all. That tweet doesn’t actually require a reply. Nor does that email. No one cares if you don’t publish another podcast. No one cares if you don’t publish that blog post. Some things, in fact, can be left unresolved without consequence.

It turns out, not one of those index cards ever included anything actually satisfying;
– have lunch with your wife,
– take a nap,
– contemplate the sunrise,
– hug your kids,
– go to bed by 10pm.

In the end, that fat binder of 3*5 To Dos turned out to be a precious collection of brain farts, drunken texts, chindogu, and deck chair rearrangements. Each one assumed it was more necessary than the next, that only I could perform it, and that I was some immortal vampire desperately looking for something, anything to keep me from realizing I’d lost my humanity (perhaps I had).

Let’s make three assumptions:
1. We’re here to make a unique, positive, and lasting contribution to the world.
2. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
3. The world will keep spinning.

Now, without looking at your To Do list, close your eyes, take three clarifying breaths (in through the nose and out through the mouth), and complete this sentence:

Across all my entire life, the one thing I most wish I could do at this moment is __________________.

Whatever your answer is, I bet it was far more exciting, interesting, and satisfyingly human, than anything in your collection of To Dos.

Imagine doing that thing, from start to finish. What’s actually keeping you from doing that thing right now. Yes, right now. The number of things you’re completely restricted from doing right now are very few. Surprise yourself and just do the thing. If you are in fact totally hampered from completing it at this moment, take the first step in fulfilling your wish:

Open up your calendar and schedule it for the first absolutely possible moment you can.

Maybe that’s later today, maybe that’s tomorrow morning. No later. Now, set it recurring. If not every week, every month.

Welcome to your calendar practice.

It’s not just for doctor appointments and staff meetings. It’s for all of you. It’s for trips to art museum, it’s for dates with your spouse, it’s for bike rides with your kids, and neighborhood kubb games.

It’s your calendar that contains the unique activities most likely to make you smile and remind you why you’re here.

Where does the time go?

Time is the worst renewable resource. Absolutely the worst. Unlike coal or crude oil, time doesn’t even give you the option of not using it. Your time will be used whether or not you use it for anything deliberate, purposeful, or meaningful. Time continually evaporates. Completely ambivalent to you and your needs.

While you can’t get a moment (or any other measure of time) back to do over, there’s likely a next moment. I say likely because there’s no guarantee. Our world is huge, complex, and filled with all kinds of risks – both banal and deadly. While 25% fewer people died in US car crashes in 2014 compared to 2005 – 32,675 people still died. That’s not even mentioning the rare, high-profile events we hear on the news every few weeks. Or an unexpected slip on the ice.

This means we’re in the exhausting position of continually and constantly making priority decisions for how use the next moment. I say ‘exhausting’ because making decisions – sorting, comparing, prioritizing, selecting – is one of the most energy-intensive activities for you and your brain. By some calculations – our brain burns 90 calories an hour. Each additional decision, each additional thought, each additional consideration – no matter how small – depletes energy from the same source. As that energy is depleted, as we become fatigued, we make far less optimal decisions.

We then allow time to evaporate around us.

We’ve all had the experience of stepping away from your desk at 5pm, walking to the train station, and spending the trip wondering what – of any consequence – you did for the past 8 hours. There are some vague memories of being pulled into unscheduled meetings, unexpected hallway conversations, some amusing and unmemorable cat videos, but no movement on hard things, important things. There just wasn’t time to focus on them as we spend the day reacting and recovering. Also lacking, the satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Herein lies the duality.

We began the day with an intention – however lightly we committed to it. As the day progressed, our intention met reality. Things we hadn’t accounted for, thing no matter how positive, still pushed our intention into another moment. A moment that while likely – and as such we will plan for – is not guaranteed.


For more, purchase my How to Use a Calendar PDF and The Power of When audio program with Patrick Rhone.

A Hunger

When I am running,

left
pulling ahead of
right
pulling ahead
again

and
again

and
a gain

faster than
I think I can,

my stomach is empty.

My Breath is the Wind

My breath is
the wind
and my body
a cloud pushed
through a clear summer sky
ever faster,
ever steadier,
ever calmer,
ever easier.