Because I’m self-employed, I create my days from scratch. But since I went out on my own, I’ve noticed something strange: rather than do only the essential each day, I often do a million things I don’t want and don’t need to do—at least not right then. I want to write. Instead I tweet. I need to finish a client project. Instead I email.
The composite is complicated. On paper, what I do is simple: I write and talk about millennials at work for my own brand and for clients. In reality, many of my days have been spent on random other work that wasted my time and drained my joy. What do you do every day at work and why? If your answer is more than a couple sentences, your career isn’t simple. But, even if you’re wildly ambitious, it can be. At least most of the time.
When I’m accidentally creating career chaos, I remember these six truths:
I don’t need to be busy.
“It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?” — Henry David Thoreau
In The Road to Character, David Brooks explains that George Marshall—the man who built and directed the largest army in history for World War II and formulated the Marshall Plan—was decidedly not a workaholic. To Marshall and many in his era, overworking signified delusional self-importance. Today, wannabe entrepreneurs post on Instagram about “radically disrupting” stuff. But mostly they’re posting on Instagram. Corporate goers moast (moan/boast) about too much on their plate. But their insane schedule scapegoats their lack of singular, strident accomplishment. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, sees busyness as a proxy for productivity:
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
“Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder,” writes Marie Kondo in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Similarly, busyness diverts what’s actually important. Its antidote, Leo Babatua believes, is focus: “Sticking to something long enough to really learn it. Remembering your priorities.” In this way, focus—and true productivity—is not what we’re doing but what we’re not doing. “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not,” Newport sums.
I don’t need a million options.
“You can have any color [car] you want as long as it is black.” — Henry Ford
Ford knew what psychologists have only recently confirmed: we like less. Despite our idealization of choice, too many options cause us to regret our decisions, obsess over foregone alternatives or simply not choose at all. Instead of widening your options, narrow your priorities. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues that tradeoffs are the inevitable essence of prioritizing. Essentialists don’t ask “What do I have to give up?” They ask, “What do I want to go big on?” Smarter Faster Better’s Charles Duhigg notes that self-motivation becomes easier when we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals. Perhaps this is why Augustine referred to prioritizing as “reordering your loves”. (Conversely, if you’re not prioritizing the things you say you love, you may not actually care about them, Elle Luna writes in The Crossroads of Should and Must.) If you only have one gallon of water and 50,000 different kinds of seeds spread across hundreds of acres, which ones will you water? This Buddhist notion of “selective watering” is, at its core, sacrifice. The average American has roughly 28,000 days of life. How will you spend them?
I don’t need gizmos.
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell
All spring I searched for an app to replace my archaic printed calendar. I grew so frustrated with crappy digital calendars that I designed one myself and decided to partner with a developer to create it. I soon realized I couldn’t prioritize the project (see previous bullet) and begrudgingly reverted to my old calendar. Now, once again, I have nothing but myself to blame for poor productivity. This is as it should be: a basic paper calendar with ample space to customize is all I need. It’s simple and unavoidable. “In spareness, you find enough,” writes Babatua. Many of us have become so disillusioned with productivity apps that pen and paper has become trendy. Now everyone’s writing about old school techniques, but this is all you need to know: Write one or three or six top priorities on paper. Do these before anything else. Roll the ones you don’t finish to the next day. We don’t need a template, a tool, an app or a guru. We need to get to work. “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” Kondo writes in Tidying Up. Do you want all the latest tricks, or do you want to do good, important work?
I don’t need to hold on.
“Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean that we need it.” ― Elle Luna
Humans hoard. We hoard things, choices and past experiences. We hoard jobs we’ve outgrown, people who hurt us and narratives about how things should go. But hoarding clutters and covers what actually matters. “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose,” Kondo explains. This starts with acknowledging their contribution and then letting them go with gratitude, says Kondo. Only then can “you truly put the things you own, and your life, in order.” When I get worked up about small things, it’s usually because I’m hoarding some useless, painful attachment to them. Declutter your life of mundane angst. “Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying,” writes Kondo. More literally, here are some ways I declutter my daily technology use: keep files and bookmarks in one place with short, easily searchable names; use an information-less browser homepage like Google’s search page or Momentum; use just one Internet window and close tabs frequently; remove applications you don’t use every day from your desktop dock; empty your trash at the end of the day; relegate social media use and meetings to a certain time of day; unsubscribe from emails that aren’t obviously interesting or useful.
I don’t need to be happy all the time.
“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” ― Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
When we prioritize happiness above all else, we enter a universe where nothing gets done unless we feel like it. Humans are fickle, and our short-term emotions deceive our long-term goals. The Minimalists—bloggers Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus—have one secret to productive writing: “Sit in a chair for two hours every day … Eventually, the words will come”. Without this kind of commitment, our short-term, pleasure-driven selves find ways to distract us. Commitment is how I survive the ups and downs of daily life. If we chase a feeling, we’ll inevitably fail. Feelings change. If we chase a concrete goal, we’ll likely succeed. Of course it’s important to question what you’re doing in work and life, but not every day. Only after many good and bad days can we figure out whether something is, on balance, worth pursuing. Until then, instead of throwing up your hands when things get hard and wasting emotional energy, Duckworth recommends an attitude of “I guess I will just carry on.” We don’t need a good mood for what’s important. We just need to do it.
I don’t need to worry.
“Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe.” — Mark Twain
Though we have less to fear than our ancestors did, we live in a culture of constant concern: Is this the right job for me? Will I be successful? Am I making enough money? Should I be networking more? We combat the confusing unknown with rampant rumination. But we can’t fight chaos with chaos. Uncertainty can instead be an opportunity for simplicity and presence. “There’s something minimalist about not knowing,” Babatua writes. “Not knowing something means I am walking around blind, without a direct path, and I must live with that, work with that.” When faced with a problem, Albert Einstein sought out its essence, not all the hang-ups surrounding it. He tried to return to the “conceptual world of his childhood” so his thinking was simple and uninhibited. In Grit, Duckworth explains that children don’t associate doing something incorrectly with “bad” until adults widen their eyes and give embarrassed or disapproving expressions. Instinctively, children know it’s okay to not know the answer. Like many ambitious millennials, I’m a planner. But there are some things we simply can’t anticipate—and, in some cases, trying hurts more than it helps. The sooner we face our inevitable uncertainty, the simpler our careers will be.
A simple career is equal parts focus and commitment. It hinges on a deep, daily understanding of what’s necessary. Unfortunately, you can’t exorcise a complicated career like cleaning a house. Instead, simplicity comes from our daily decision to remember and reinforce what brought us here in the first place.