An essential intent is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.
— Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Since the middle of December, I have been feeling a bit off. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, because it was affecting multiple areas of my life. I wasn’t feeling very motivated to do things, more physically drained, and when I did feel up to do something, I kept procrastinating. Even writing this right now has been a struggle- I should have been writing it weeks ago.
My mind has been exploring all kinds of options to try and get me on the right track once again. The first solution I tried in March, that did make a major improvement in how I was feeling, was a kelp supplement.1 It consists of iodine that supports your thyroid gland, which I suspected was the cause of me feeling so drained. After a week of taking it, I was feeling much better, and was able to get out to do some more hikes to my favourite spot. It made quite the boost the first month in how I was doing. Since the end of April, I have felt myself slip down again though.
The stress levels in my life have been climbing since that time, which I knew would be complicated matters. Stress is something I generally handle fairly well though, so I thought there was something more going on. One of my clues was how much better I felt during the weeks I had my daughter compared to the weeks without her. I was sleeping better, getting more things done, and felt better at the end of the day, despite the stress of my life still being there.
This past week, without my daughter, has been spent looking into my past to see if I could find some additional inspiration to get moving forward again. Reading through my writing from five to ten years ago was interesting, but wasn’t quite as effective as I thought since I wrote about a lot of the same struggles. Today is Saturday. I decided to set aside my own writing and do something I haven’t done in a long time. I settled into my chair, picked up my iPad, and started to catch up on Saga, the comic book series that I had purchased long ago and failed to keep reading. I read through 15 issues in one sitting and felt pretty good afterwards. I didn’t allow myself to be distracted by anything else while reading it either.
Burning through those issues from the past few years, went through the remainder of the battery on the iPad, so I brought it back into my office area to charge. After plugging it in, I looked over to my bookshelf and saw the book essentialism staring out at me. Picking it up, I returned to my chair, and started to read through the later chapters once again. It’s one of those books where you can read the same section again and pick up on something new that you missed the first time.
Today, I had one of those moments when I went through the section on flow and saw this passage:
Our ability to execute the essential improves with practice, just like any other ability. Think about the first time you had to perform a certain critical function at work. At first you felt like a novice. You probably felt unsure and awkward. The effort to focus drained your willpower. Decision fatigue set in. You were probably easily distracted. This is perfectly normal. But once you performed the function over and over, you gained confidence. You were no longer sidetracked. You were able to perform the function better and faster, and with less concentration and effort. This power of a routine grows out of our brain’s ability to take over entirely until the process becomes fully unconscious.
I emphasized the three sentences that struck a chord with me. They describe me perfectly the past few months. I was feeling less drained during the weeks I had my daughter, because I knew what to do and had these internal routines built in after doing it for the past three years. Wake up, get her ready for school, drop her off, work for five hours, then return to pick her up, go through the routine at home to get her fed and in bed, etc. My mind knew what had to be done depending on the time of the day, and setup my work day around her school day.
The weeks I don’t have my daughter have been a free-for-all. With so many possibilities out there, I couldn’t decide on what to actually do. The more time I spent thinking about it, the less energy I had for that task, and I ended up doing things that didn’t really matter. The root cause of this is trying focus on too many things at once. It’s fine to have many interests and goals in life, but I’m not going to be able to complete them all at the same time.
That’s where the first quoted paragraph comes into play: I really need to zero in and decide on what’s important for me to do right now. Small goals that will help generate some movement towards the larger goals in my life. This all starts with building some flow into my life to help me accomplish those smaller goals. Greg McKeown writes about how most of our tasks are done unconsciously, because we were triggered to do them. After I come up with my end goals, the next step is creating new triggers to help build better habits that will lead me towards success. Setting reminders will likely be the first way in how I get them set up and reprogram myself to produce better habits.
I can already tell this process is going to be a bit of a challenge, because my body is feeling more tired as I continue to write this and think about the work to be done. The resistance, the lizard brain, however you want to describe it is pretty strong right now. Hitting publish tonight will set me down the right path of setting out to make that one decision now that will settle my later decisions, and hopefully make life a little bit easier on me.
Read my previous post about the book, Year of Essentialism