The balanced life: escaping short-termism and developing an internal compass

“What is essential is invisible to the eye” says the Little Prince. I agree. One of the core principles of time management and, indeed, of personal growth is that the important often eludes us.

As I discussed in my previous post, if we don’t practice an intentional life – where we consciously direct our focus and actions toward our most important outcomes – our days, weeks, years drift into a sort of default mode where the external stimuli (often in the form of other people’s agendas) or our internal urges take hold of our time. David Allen talks about being driven by the “latest and loudest”; Stephen Covey speaks about being trapped in reactive mode (as opposed to proactive mode).

Let’s be honest: it is difficult to set our own agenda. It is much easier to react. Deciding what to do is the most energy consuming activity out there. David Allen recounts almost nostalgically about his first few jobs where, basically, all he had to do was “crank widgets” all day. He showed up at work, there were a bunch of un-cranked widgets to crank, and he new exactly what to do… no head scratching to determine the course of action to take. And for every cranked widget, he had the satisfaction of completion, of attaining a worthwhile outcome.

The problem is, with our “knowledge driven society”, there are less and less of these jobs, and they tend not be the best paid ones. But more importantly, even if you do have such a job, there is the rest of your life to manage, and your life is not a widget cranking affair. It’s about decisions – key decisions that, slowly and steadily, shape your destiny.

What is important to understand is that there is a lag – often quite a big one – between our everyday actions/habits and the consequences they produce. Without a “blueprint”, a conscious effort to steer our lives in a pre-determined course, the sum-total of our actions can lead to unpredictable – and often catastrophic – results. But they do so silently, almost imperceptibly, and that’s what makes them so dangerous. Its like the famous metaphor of a frog in a pot of water that is slowly warming up: by the time it realizes that the water is boiling, it’s too late!

So what are the areas of our lives where we should pay attention to that water that is heating so as to be ready to make that leap out of the pot? Too many to count. I will only give a few key examples.

Health/Fitness. Every day that passes without significant cardiovascular activity constitutes a health hazard. Believe me, I am an office worker and I know. Silently sitting on a chair for up to 8 hours a day and then driving back home without any physical activity to speak of is a way to slowly trash my health – both mentally and physically. Only a conscious, constant effort on my part to break the chain and introduce and maintain a regular fitness routine can bring me out of danger. My default day is a hazardous day, and without correctives I am heading straight towards disaster.

Family. Stephen Covey’s metaphor of the “emotional bank account” is spot on. A relationship – any relationship – is based on constant “deposits” in the other person’s imaginary emotional bank account: the time we invest in the relationship, the love we are prepared to give, the sacrifices that we are willing to make etc. I believe, like Covey, that most deteriorating relationships are the product of a slow process of “drifting away”, whereby people imperceptibly stop making these “deposits”. If the relationship isn’t regularly nurtured, it dies a slow but very real death.

Finances. We all know the law of compound interest, whereby if you save the money of one latte per day starting when you are 18, by age 50 you might be able to buy yourself a house (ok, I may be exaggerating a little!). Without a minimum of financial planning we risk overstepping and putting ourselves and our family in murky waters. Our consumer-centered, credit card driven societies – where the impulse to purchase isn’t often mitigated by a healthy realization of our real possibilities – seem geared towards swaying us from the proper path of financial responsibility.

Work. Meaningful work is not the product of urgency, but of strategic planning, regular networking, and gradual, never-ending skills acquisition. To spend the day in the workplace reacting to emails, responding on Twitter and blindly following other people’s agendas is a recipe for long-term failure.

These are only some examples of how we need to be actively managing different spheres of our lives (professional, spiritual, mental, social, emotional, physical), making sure that none of them are in “default mode”. The ability to recognize that one or more of them is off-balance is one of the most important life skills. To master this skill is to develop an internal compass (Covey) or thermostat (Robbins) that automatically alerts us when we are off course. It signals us when our relationship is losing momentum, when our work lacks depth, when our health is waning, when that savings account is no longer growing. Life is about constant course-corrections in every single dimension, so that we may never need to attempt brusque and dangerous maneuvers to avoid an iceberg at the last moment.

For that to happen, we need to minimize the time we spend in activities that are unimportant, that simply waste our time without building anything in the long term; and resist the temptation of urgent activities that seem important but are actually not. Every minute saved in this way must be devoted to activities that that will contribute to our success and fulfillment in the long term even though they may have no immediate payback (Covey calls this the P/PC balance – Production/Production capability – or “Quadrant II activities” that are important but not urgent; other authors refer to this as the ability to exercise discipline and delay gratification). In other words, we must be conscious about how we spend our time, and ask ourselves if a particular activity, done with regularity, is likely to contribute to a particular dimension of our life in the long run. If the answer is no, substitute it with an activity that does. For example, swap long-term tv addiction with healthy reading, nights out with your partner and trips to the gym.

The key message is: we are the product of the way we choose to spend our time. Let’s develop an awareness of how we are investing our time, and an understanding of where this will lead us long-term, in all the key dimensions of life. Let’s learn to recognize icebergs, brick walls, heating water before its too late, and course correct. If we find ourselves engaging in an activity that contributes to our long term development, we are on the right track; if, on the contrary, what we are doing has no foreseeable long term impact, then we are likely wasting our time and, what’s worst, pruning ourselves for some real trouble down the road.

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