I am on a plane with my wife Eleanor as we fly back from our once-a-year-without-children vacation. It was, for us, the perfect week. After years of planning vacations, we’ve finally figured out how to reliably create a meaningful, fun, fulfilling week.
The solution was answering three questions:
- What is the vacation about? We wanted to be active, to eat and drink well, to be outdoors, and to spend undistracted time reconnecting. We chose a self-guided bicycle trip in the Loire valley in France.
- What is the day about? Each day we bicycled about 50 kilometers, following a route traced out on a map that we looked at each morning.
- What is the moment about? Once in France, on our bikes, following our route, we were free to be completely present in each moment. The big picture had been taken care of; we knew we were in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time, with the right person.
I’ve always struggled with the challenge of balancing two opposites that are both important to me: achieving goals and focusing on the present. Answering these questions solved that conundrum for me. Answering the first question set us in the right direction. Answering the second ensured we would follow through. And once those questions were settled — the goals were defined and our route planned out — then we were free to focus on each moment without distraction, knowing we were moving in the right direction.
Now, I get that not everyone wants an achievement-oriented vacation. And, being present on a vacation is a lot easier than being present in daily life. But the three questions that helped us create a fulfilling vacation are the same three questions that can help any of us create a fulfilling life.
Fulfillment comes from a life of meaningful achievement and from being present in each moment while moving in the direction we most want to move. But for many of us there’s often a disconnect between what we want to accomplish with our lives, what we do day to day, and our ability to enjoy and focus on each moment as it is. I have found that asking myself the three questions — questions that form the foundation of my forthcoming book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done — helps resolve that disconnect.
What is This Year About?
This is my long-term focus. Why a year? Because a lifetime is too much; for many people it can be paralyzing to try to figure out their life’s purpose. And we we’re used to living by years; schools, birthdays, religious and secular holidays, salaries, bonuses, and performance reviews all operate within the framework of a year. A year provides us with the perfect amount of time in which to make real progress in our lives without getting lost.
I answer this question by choosing five areas of focus. One of mine is speaking and writing about my ideas. Another is doing work I’m proud of with my clients. A third is nurturing myself and my family. I always make sure that my five areas of focus make use of my strengths, embrace my weaknesses, assert my differences, and pursue my passions. That way, I know that if I spend my year focusing on those five areas, my life will be filled with meaningful accomplishments. I will be in the right place doing the right things.
What is This Day About?
I used to spend my days working on what seemed most urgent and important to address that morning. But, over time, I found that while I was busy, those days weren’t adding up to a meaningful year. And I often felt overwhelmed, working furiously to whittle down a never-ending task list that wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go.
My antidote to this disconnected busyness is my six-box to-do list (which I talked about in my last post); one box for each of my five areas of focus and a sixth box for everything else, the other 5%. That way all of my tasks are directly linked to — and move me forward in — the areas I most want to focus on in the year. Every morning I look at my six-box to-do list and design my schedule for the day. What is this day about? How will it bring me one day closer to what I want to achieve for the year? What is most important for me to accomplish today? In other words, I trace the route I want to follow for that day on my map.
With that awareness, I get to work. But knowing how easily distracted I am, I don’t leave it at that. I set my watch to beep every hour, interrupting myself for one minute to reconnect with my purpose for the day. In that minute, I ask myself two questions: Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now? Am I being who I most want to be right now?
At the end of the day, I pause for a few minutes to reconnect again with my purpose and I ask myself whether I made meaningful movement — a day’s worth — in the areas I most wanted to focus on for the day. I’ve posted a downloadable one-page Daily Template on my website — a map — that can serve as a guide to this process throughout the day.
What is This Moment About?
This is your reward for having answered the first two questions well. Once you’ve scheduled your day based on what you want to focus on for the year, you can take a deep breath and get to work, focusing fully on each moment, releasing yourself from all worry that you might be spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.
You’re following the route you traced on your map — the map you created to reflect what you most want to focus on for your year. That creates a boundary. Stay within the boundary and you pretty much guarantee that your work will lead to meaningful achievement. That gives you the confidence — and the freedom — to focus on and enjoy each moment. You’ll be able to be present in the present while moving towards the right future.
For Eleanor and me, on our summer vacation, answering those three questions led to hours of pedaling through beautiful French countryside, sipping great wines, eating delicious food, lost in conversation but never lost. At the end of each day, without thinking much about it at all, we always ended up right where we planned to be.
I find your columns and advice incredibly insightful and useful. I’ve downloaded your templates and am going to start working on them. I especially like the hourly timer and reassessment. Email,Twitter, Facebook, NYTimes…I can get incredibly distracted.
You really put it in perspective as a life is a terrible thing to waste. Before we know it, we have an incredibly short time left while wanting for so much more. Thank you, Peter.
Thanks, Peter, for your interesting insights on human productivity that I;ve read on HBR web-site. They are really helpful.
I wonder if balancing the task list and the long-term objectives has some benefit? Or it could be more about making sure each daily task is matched to the bigger objectives.