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How to Focus on What's Most Important
Recently I joined my friend Eric Zimmer on his podcast, The One You Feed, to discuss how to focus our lives on what’s most important to us, and what blocks us from achieving that.
Too many of us are still stuck looking for a way to really see and access the possibilities right in front of us. So that's the first opportunity. How do we start where we are now?
We focus far too much on what we don't have (instead of what we do), or on things that hold us back and dampen our spirit. We know our thought patterns are a huge piece of the puzzle, and that working on our negativity, and transforming it, has huge dividends to pay. But it's not just about thinking, our actions matter, too.
Finding the Most Abundant Possibility (Together)
“The One You Feed” makes reference to an old Native American tale in which a grandmother tells her grandson that two wolves are at battle within every person: a good wolf and a bad wolf.
“Which one wins?” the grandson asks.
“The one you feed,” she replies.
Whenever I personally find myself in a situation of uncertainty or discomfort, especially when it comes to other people, a question I often ask myself is: What's the most abundant possibility we can co-create together?
If we start there — by focusing on the most abundant possibility of our co-creation, it gets us out of zero sum games. It gets us out of the cycle of feeding the bad wolf. Considering the most abundant possibility we can create moves us into a sense of partnership. It's a way of guiding myself towards the good wolf, as it were.
Some of our readers may know that I am an avid motorcyclist. In motorcycle riding, as in driving, there's a rule: You always look first at the place you want to go. You don't look at what you're trying to avoid, because that's the best way to crash into it. When you ride a motorcycle, you look through the curve.
When I'm steering and navigating through life, I hear and feel the bad wolf. But I'm looking at the good wolf and say to myself, “How do I steer towards that?” And I might get it wrong. But in my experience, I don't know that I have ever regretted steering towards the good wolf. I've never regretted at least trying to build the most abundant possibility with other people.
Ideally you end up in the place where you don't have to ask the question anymore. You're just always steering in that direction. It’s one reason to think positively about the future. Ultimately we don't know the outcome, really, so why not imagine it in a way that’s empowering, versus a way that keeps me looking at the obstacles I don't want to hit?
I’ve said it elsewhere, but it bears saying again: your planning and your schedule needs to include your dreams. If we don’t dream about what's possible, instead we stay stuck in the world of: what's the least bad thing that can happen to me right now? And how do I avoid the least bad thing?
So much of the work necessarily involves envisioning, and saying to ourselves: “This is what life could look like.”
You can’t just endlessly settle for what you know isn’t enough — instead, you’ve got to move to “it's possible” first, and then “it's plausible”. There's a pathway to there.
More importantly, that shift does not need us to employ hustle culture to get there. It doesn't require burnout and maximum effort or Dunkirk Spirit.
Prioritizing What’s Most Important for You (as an Individual)
There's a way for us to move where we want to go, but it involves first identifying what the story is that's keeping us from seeing what's possible. What can be actualized is often right in front of us, but that’s exactly where a lot of people get stuck.
People get blocked by all kinds of head trash. That’s why giving ourselves permission is such a struggle: it’s okay for us to have the abundance we’ve dreamed of. It’s ok to live in that world, and hope others can live in a more abundant world, where they allow themselves to dream, too.
If you get to that point of fighting the head trash, you may be on the right track. That’s the hard inner work that you have to get through to prioritize your dreams.
This came up with Eric, who, despite success with his podcast, has been wrestling back and forth with the idea of whether he can take a month off and travel when he’s got his own business.
There’s this sense for a lot of folks, when it comes to rest or time away: “That’s not something that someone like me does.”
My thought was, “Oh really? Let's unpack that.”
If you fundamentally think you don't deserve rest or a break, or that it's not possible or not relevant for you, there’s a likelihood you're going to keep creating a cycle of burnout and frustration. And it’s not because you can't take a break, or that things would actually fall apart if you did, but it’s because you're unwilling to permit yourself to take that break. That's where a lot of the work to be done lies.
For Eric to be able to give himself that permission involved moving away from hustle culture: the idea that more is inherently better, that we need to go bigger, and earn more money constantly.
Instead he tried asking himself, in the context of his life, “What do I really want?” That’s how he realized what he wanted most was to take time off. That’s the one thing he had never felt he had time in his life to do.
I’ll also say that for some folks who may be reading this, it’s not in every case quite as simple as, “I give myself permission.” Yes it’s about acknowledging, “this is what's possible.” But it’s also about: “This is what's possible for me.”
Those two words, “for me”, become really powerful. Together knowing it’s also possible “for me” makes the difference in whether you might just start taking whatever your aspiration is, and turning it into a real project, that is central in your life — where you devote real time and energy to it.
When you start talking about something as a priority, or as a project, it has to live on your schedule. A lot of people might be thinking about an idea for years without it ever taking up space on their schedule.
But it’s those projects you’ve dreamed of that are going to create your future self. That’s what we're talking about here — what really lights you up in a way that only uniquely you can do. Our best projects, as I wrote about in Start Finishing, are mirrors, and bridges. Mirrors reflect your internal landscape: what you think about yourself, what you believe as possible, who you think you are, but they also mirror what's happening in your external world.
“I'm gonna do the thing.” And we decide to do the thing. But immediately we’re confronted with head trash, limiting beliefs, competing priorities. And thinking… I can't do this new thing, I was already overloaded with the old thing. How am I going to do the new thing?
But the project is simultaneously the bridge towards your future self, that future work that you're going to do. The great part about it is, the bridge you're building can take you a whole lot further than you thought you were going to go.
You can't imagine, when you really do this type of work, where it's all going to take you. When you really commit to the path, it can take longer to get there than you thought, or a lot of people get there faster than they had originally considered possible. That’s part of why we created the Start Finishing Field Guide to help you along that path.
Why We Need Spaciousness in Our Goal-Setting and Work
We need that spaciousness not just in our individual work and paths, for leaders or entrepreneurs, but in our team work, too. For Eric, when he finally allowed himself to take a break, he came back with a renewed spirit – where rather than dreading getting back to work, he was amazed out how much unfolded that had previously felt stuck or impossible.
So many clients and people in different contexts come up to me saying, “I want to do more, bigger, better.” Mainly because that’s the priming we’re getting from just about everywhere. I hesitate, since I don’t want to say, “sorry, I cannot help you do more.”
Instead, at Productive Flourishing, we’re more interested in helping you focus on the best and right things first, which mostly means doing and committing to fewer things. That’s the reason we have the five project rule. It doesn’t make sense to overburden yourself with more than you can feasibly do in a given time period (day, week, month, or year). If you really focus within limits, that level of commitment does a lot of the groundwork.
The worst case scenario is we end up constantly stuffing things in, and micro-crunching our days and weeks so much that it’s a highway to burnout. We may be ‘getting things done', but we're so stressed out about it, that we can hardly enjoy it. The question I always ask is: How do you structure this in a way so that you can actually breathe and enjoy it as you're doing it?
If it's always just about crunching it, and doing it in the minimum amount of time and getting the maximum return — all those things that we hear — that becomes really, really unsatisfying.
Like imagine this scenario about your favorite dessert: I say, I'm going to make your favorite dessert for you. I put it in front of you, then I pull out a stopwatch. You get 15 seconds, go. Enjoy it, maximize it. Get it right. That makes no freakin’ sense. We want a certain amount of savoring when it comes to so many things that truly matter to her life.
How to Prioritize in the (Hybrid) Work World
If you have a bit of autonomy in your day, which is actually many of us in the post-pandemic hybrid work world, there's not necessarily someone standing over your shoulder observing your work.
But what I've seen time and time again, across our audience, is that work can still be too stressful. In that burnout environment, we end up in this state of distraction, with time wasters and fillers, just to give ourselves a bit of emotional reprieve.
If work wasn't so stressful to start with, we likely would not have need of that reprieve, meaning there would be substantially less chance of ending up in time sucks on social media or email — or whatever it is for you.
More spaciousness, whether on teams or individually, opens up new possibilities in our work and in the range of possibilities for our (or our team’s) success. If you actually take a step back, the likelihood is, your chances are substantially higher to come back recharged and able to really think through whatever problem it is that’s facing you. Slowing down often leads to novel insights. We can quite literally be better humans with the people we spend our days with — our team members included. We wind up not so compressed and snippy.
When taken as a habit, as a practice, that sense of space dramatically changes the quality of your work day in and day out. It means not holding on through an endless slog of painful work — instead it’s about going to work, engaged, energized, filled with a sense of meaning and purpose. Let’s face it, that’s a win no matter what happens.
How to Push the Most Important Things Forward
The chief issue with working on a team (also co-located teams) is that when we’re working with other humans, we end up with some amount of social overhead. You end up in negotiation with others. If I block off my schedule, that impacts you, because now I'm not available for different things.
At most companies, unfortunately, there are the stated values and priorities, and then there's shadow values and priorities. There's this other game that you've got to play to be successful.
In really well-aligned organizations and really high performance ones, high-performing teams know there's not so much of the shadow game, like it's just all on the table. People know how to win. Regardless of the dynamics in specific organizations, the first question in any kind of workplace ought to be: How do I ship the most valuable work that pushes my team forward?
There are two axes of approach here. One is to really reclaim the time, or consider the time you do have and use that more purposefully.
If you’re faced with too much stress, or too many projects, the usual management tip is that you ought to bring the matter to your boss’ attention, and ask, what do you consider the priority is, or where should I start? In the 21st century, because of the way self-managed work has evolved, I would add a slight tweak here.
Rather than saying, “I can't do these in this timeline,” I would take ownership: “I think these are the five most important. Do you agree? Am I correct about that?” And if they agree, it shows you've done that work of translation of your reality to make it legible for them — you're not just like, “It’s too many things, pick for me.”
It’s the same when it comes to managing something like performance reviews. You get to take the ownership, and say: “Here's what I've done over the last six months. Here are some of the things I know I need to work on.”
Ideally, the lines of communication have already been open with you and your team members or leader on these points. So you can suggest, “Here's my plan of action for doing that.” And that means you get to have a very short performance conversation. Unless you're just wildly misreading things. But even if you are misreading things, it’s better to know that sooner rather than later, right?
How Team Habits Work with Goal-Setting and Prioritization
On the team side of these issues, let me first get a few core concepts out of the way. When I say team, I’m talking about the four to eight people you work with, day in and day out. Most teams are about that size. If you’ve heard me talking about my forthcoming book, Team Habits, it turns out you have an incredible amount of rapport and influence with that smaller core you work with.
The nuance I’m talking about can really be seen when the team as a whole moves and operates in a certain way. That's just how the team rolls. Then you have a team habit. This is where a lot of the magic unlocks.
But the interesting thing about our team habits is they’re often implicit or unconscious agreements we make with each other. Then we just sort of do them, like any habit.
When I'm out talking to people in the field, leading a workshop for a company, for instance, I might ask, “Hey, did you at some point choose that when the team has an open schedule, that means a team meeting automatically gets scheduled?” The general answer is, “Ah…” and if you go down the list, no one agreed out loud that’s the way things should be.
In a small team, let me give you a scenario for how it can work (especially if we’re wanting to create new habits of highly effective teams), and cover down on a task that keeps slipping. Take managing cc: threads. We can decide that Tim will be the person to read the cc: threads, and he’ll let us know if there’s actually something relevant in that jam. He can also speak on the team’s behalf, like, hey, my team is doing X, Y and Z today. He is the liaison for the team. Maybe Charlie will do it tomorrow.
That gives the entire team of four to eight people freed up capacity. That means only one person has to read this thread to figure out what's going on, so that the seven other people on that team can get to work. It's an easily available solution. But we just don't think of these kinds of solutions often because of the unconscious way team habits work.
It turns out, and maybe this is a fact a lot of us intuitively know: Most change management programs have abysmal success rates. Especially when it comes down from the top down, between two thirds and three quarters of change management projects don't work, they fail.
When's the last time from high up, someone's created a policy that's actually made your life better? There's a saying in organizational development, recruiting and workforce management that people don't leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses.
The fact is that your small team is frequently better equipped to take better care of each other — to build that trust and belonging that can lead to improved performance and results.
As an individual I may love or really dig the people that I work with, but hate working with them. That’s a fixable problem.
What we have to do in that scenario is stand up and feed the wolf. Be better at identifying bad team habits, and creating better ones — actively thinking, what's it going to take for us to not show up and have the same setbacks day in day out?
In the course of this conversation on how to focus on the most important things with Eric, we touched on the subject of productivity. There are a lot of words in the broader industry that we're in that I don't love. But there are useful ideas too, which can play out in how we move on successful team goals. For instance, a crucial insight we might take and apply directly to team performance, is about being proactive versus reactive.
Being proactive takes courage. You might pick wrong, you might spend three months or six months working on the wrong damn thing. But having that courage with your team and as an individual to really say, “Here's where we're trying to go, let's organize ourselves to get there.” It makes such a dramatic difference, because you don't end up in this place of resignation and quiet quitting.
With bad team habits, and with a lack of courage or purpose, that’s what happens in the workplace. When we disengage it creates an add-on snowball effect, and we disengage again, then others do, too. That’s the path that leads to bad cultures from bad bosses. I get that. I've done this work long enough to know that some of us, leaders included, have just not gotten to the place where we see the possibility that's right in front of us.
Ultimately I'm a team guy. Because when we're part of a good team, that’s where we have great performance and great belonging, it's just one of the most sublime human experiences that hits us so hard, and is hard to beat. It’s for that reason I get nostalgia about being in the Army sometimes.
That’s the reminder I’d like to leave us with here — it’s the whole reason I wrote Start Finishing, which is now being played out in Team Habits in a different way. (P.S.: If you weren't already in the know, Team Habits is coming this August and now available for pre-order at your favorite bookseller.)
And it’s that we’re here to help people get on a pathway to a way of working that makes work a sublime experience. That’s possible with teams, for any team, and we all have the ability to get there.
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