Many of us, including me, work like the dickens to create systems that filter and classify work in our professional lives. Filters that allow us to get things done (execute), and think strategically. It’s critical in business to sharpen our ability to be planful and take advantage of strategic opportunities, and equally important to execute. If we don’t, everyone who counts on us will suffer, including our organizations broadly. The good news is that we have decent feedback loops in a business setting, and we get that feedback fairly quickly.
In our personal lives, this attitude of “plan and execute” tends to change. Somehow we feel that we go home to “get away from all that”. We don’t want to take our work home with us, so we divorce ourselves from the lessons and techniques we use at work when we arrive at home. People think (mistakenly in my opinion) that nothing should cross the work/home boundaries, lest our lives get thrown irreparably out of balance.
It’s no wonder that most people put little to no effort into building a reasonable sense of agency – the ability to think strategically and act on those strategies – when it comes to their own personal lives. My wife and I have come to realize that this is a huge mistake, because the things that we want to accomplish in the pursuit of fulfillment in our own lives tend to come from a category of stuff that we call “life goals”.
So to begin, I want to illustrate how “life goals” differ from other activities.
Define Your “Stuff”
As we take on the challenges of our days, work (or “stuff”) comes to us from everywhere. This “stuff” falls into the Stephen Covey Urgency/Importance Matrix, and can be defined this way:
Distractions - (Low Urgency, Low Importance)
These are items that are not important, nor are they urgent. They tend to be things that pop up all the time, because we let them. For me, these are things like web surfing, short stints in front of the television, arranging papers on my desk, browsing a magazine or two. It’s simple trivia and busywork.
Interruptions - (High Urgency, Low Importance)
These are urgent, but hold little/no relative value. I have three kids, and my life seems to be filled with these. “Dad. Dad! DAD!!!!” my son will scream from his room. When I arrive in a panic, thinking he just broke his leg, he asks me to get him some batteries for his flashlight (or a “peanut granola bar”).
Life Goals – (Low Urgency, High Importance)
This is stuff that’s important, but there is no urgency to get it done. This is where our “life goals” come from. This includes stuff like proactively building strong family friendships, reading and reflecting on parenting techniques to help our children build their independence and life skills, and creating a vision for what our marriage could be as we get to know one another more deeply, and deliberately creating the life we want.
Critical Activities – (High Urgency, High Importance)
These are things that are really important, and have clear urgency. These situations can take the form of emergencies, urgent family matters, disasters, etc. The typical response is to summon any and all resources you can to handle the activity, dropping everything else in your life. You essentially enter autopilot mode and go.
To build a life of fulfillment and meaning, my opinion is that you have to spend as much time as you can in quadrant #3 – Life Goals. Of course we need to spend time in all four of these quadrants, but spending time in the other three is not hard. In fact, those quadrants tend to “just happen”. Busy work, interruptions, and emergencies come and go all the time. And if you let yourself, you will stay in those three areas (and grow very little). Only by building your agentive “muscles” can you think about those areas that will actually create the life you want.
OK. By now you’re saying that talk is cheap. So, to put my money where my mouth is, I decided to take a few key lessons from my professional life and use them in pursuit of happier, more fulfilling days with my wife, my family, and myself. Interesting things ensued! I am learning a great deal about the power of taking my own advice. I’d like to describe the process along with some of the lessons learned (more details in a subsequent post).
The Concepts Used
Specifically, we used a planning retreat, a concept for perpetual planning that works extremely well in work settings. The concept is simple enough. Take yourself and your significant other “offsite”. Go somewhere familiar or go somewhere novel, but find a place that you can get some privacy, some focus, and get to work. Organize your time and prepare for the day with homework. Schedule a follow-up session quarterly. If you’re really aggressive, schedule a weekly check-in.
There are more than a few powerful concepts that emerge from time like this. Some examples include concepts taken from Lean and Kanban. One example: the ability to talk about emotionally charged areas of our lives with partners with a little less emotion. After all, if we have thoughtful life goals (about things like budgeting, marital communication, our kids, etc) and they are part of our quarterly offsite discussions, then we have a non-emotional way to bring these issues up in relative safety, and we can do it on a cadence (versus when we bounce a check) **I feel compelled to tell you we don’t bounce checks. :)
Other concepts examples: treating the “act of planning” as much more important than “the plan”.
“Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable” – Dwight Eisenhower
Via Personal Kanban, we are attempting to get everything out of our heads and visualized to manage the “existential overhead” of keeping tasks and projects in our brains. We combined GTD concepts to put the outcome of our planning in a trusted system so we could “manage the system, versus manage the work”. We determine things that need to get handled NOW, versus things we can PLAN, or those that we can DEFER (or things we can THROW AWAY). We use dates and deadlines sparingly for goals. We have plenty that has to have a date associated with it, but the bulk of our goals have no date because we view those dates as needless constraints and a source of guilt and angst if we find ourselves “living life” and missing occasional deadlines. Plus, we don’t want to be “shackled” to dates if we feel we can deliver faster (ok, I threw that last one in as a challenge to myself)
Lastly, we are using agile principles as well and have created a regular cadence to reflect on our approach (and ourselves) and tune accordingly. One way is through a weekly chat that allows us to review our system. The second is a “re-planning” session that will happen quarterly. If we start to come off the rails, or we feel like we are moving in a direction we don’t like, or we find ourselves with a new challenge we didn’t expect, the mechanism is in place to help us take deliberate action.
Well, that’s it for now. You’ve caught the experiment “in progress”. I would like to describe the actual planning process in more detail and I will do that in the next post. Maybe we will have a result by then!