You have to let me know, every step of the way, you have to tell me if what you’re doing really matters.
Time is a resource that we are always spending. We always decide how we spend it, and more often than not it’s in a very poor manner. Right now you’re reading this; you got to this link through Facebook or Google+ (or on a very low probability from elsewhere). You’re staring at the screen. The clock is ticking. What are you doing? Is what you’re doing important – does it even matter to you?
Don’t take this the wrong way. There are things that are a waste of time from the perspective of a productivity junkie, that matter tremendously. I’m not here to argue that you shouldn’t be doing activity a or b, I’m here to argue that you should ask yourself whether it matters to you. To me, a lot of these seemingly unproductive activities are vital to my productivity. If I don’t take a break in one way or another, if I don’t refresh my bandwidth (see this and my thoughts on it), I burn out – I need these activities as much as I need some caffeine sometimes.
I want you to ask yourself what you want (from a very high level). Then drill down your day to day activities into categories in order to understand what steps you are taking to achieve what you want in life. This exercise has gotten me to look at things differently. What matters to me is to help others. I could help others in a lot of ways, but in order for me to stay motivated I needed to use my passion to help others. If I am not passionate about it, I quickly lose focus. You have your goal, and then how you channel your passion to achieve your goal. I decided that making a significant contribution to my field in computer vision would help society – the projects that I have begun working on in the medical industry make me feel like at least in some degree, I made a decent choice. Pursuing my doctorate seems like a good way of striving towards what makes me happy. Now, that’s all super high level, and if that’s all you have, you might as well have not thought about it. The important aspect is to figure out how to achieve these goals down to the week to week schedule. A first step in that direction is to divide your activities into two categories. Things that are directly helping you achieve your goals, and things that are indirectly helping you stay motivated to do the activities in the first category. This would be a sample breakdown for me:
Category 1 – Direct Goal-Oriented Activities
Category 2 – Bandwidth Refreshers
Go to my laboratory to do research
Attend research meetings
Read research papers in new fields
Practice linear algebra
Go out to eat with friends
I personally strive to maximize the amount of time I spend on activities in category 1 while minimizing the time I spend on category 2 without losing focus. I also reward myself with activities in category 2 in order to stay motivated to do category 1 activities. Like some learning algorithms ;) I continue to make tweaks to my day to day life in order to find what works for me, because inevitably I am the most volatile variable in the equation.
Over time, I have learned that being really hard on yourself for not being able to work at certain times was just incredibly counterproductive. I would get upset at myself for not being able to work, which just recursively made me not work, and the endless loop continued. Over time I have learned that if instead I just go grab dinner with a friend or I go for a bike ride and then come back I am once again efficient and motivated. As a bonus my mind has cleared which just adds to the ability to solve problems that I encounter at work.
How do you spend your time? The more you give your life some thought, the more I’d like to argue that you’ll get closer to achieving your dreams. You probably don’t know what these dreams are, but I’m sure from a really high level, you have some general sense of what you like and want. Just pick that and go with it. Our lives are a really long experiment in trying things we think we are going to love, and eventually we figure out which ones make us happy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone else is just set in stone and that you’re the one lost soul that has not figured out what their goal is. None of us know, but embarking on that search to encounter failure as a stepping stone to success is orders of magnitude better than staring into the abyss wondering why you haven’t figured out what you want to do. Time is still ticking. We can’t make it stop so start doing things before you no longer matter (spoiler: eventually you die).
On a final note, be careful. Don’t convince yourself that every activity you do is part of category 2. It’s easy to lie to yourself and justify everything you do by stating that it clears your bandwidth and that without it you would not be able to work. If you’re not motivated to work in the first place, you won’t get anywhere anyways. You can’t classify every activity in a strictly binary fashion, some activities (like working out) in category 2 are orders of magnitude better than others (going out partying) – and we’re all different, so take my examples with huge skepticism, experiment with what works for you, and you’ll be one step closer to being successful (which to me is very closely related to doing what makes you happy).