Time to go home
Creative Commons License photo credit: alancleaver_2000

This is a guest post by Mark Harrison who writes for a number of self improvement sites. Check out his latest book, Thirty Days to Change Your Life.

Life can sometimes seem like an assault course. People are forever making demands on your time, expectations keep changing, and there is pressure on you to perform or ‘show results.’ Our busy daily lives can be chaotic and confusing. How can we approach this demanding and ever-changing obstacle course, not only unscathed but successful? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind as I make my way through each hectic day.

Know What’s Important, What’s Urgent, & What’s Neither
The difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ is vital. Steven Covey, in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people, writes about this at some length. Some things are urgent and must be dealt with immediately – the baby is crying, there’s been an accident, the deadline is in ten minutes. Of the remaining tasks, some are important but not urgent, and others are neither urgent nor important. The latter category of tasks can effectively be postponed indefinitely without consequence, but it is the important-not-urgent category that can cause the most trouble. Not being urgent, these items can be postponed, but the consequences of not doing them can be quite serious.

Taking time to review and reflect on the success of a project, for example, is important but rarely urgent. It is the kind of thing that often gets neglected, yet failing to do it can serious impact on the success of a future project. Taking time to be with your family is another example. Some people postpone this most important of activities for years, and as a result they miss out on one of the richest and most rewarding experiences in life.

As things come onto your radar, try to put them in the right category. Don’t spend too much time on things that aren’t important, even if they’re urgent. If you can, delegate the unimportant stuff to free up more time. And, most importantly, plan some time to deal with the really important things. To quote a famous line, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff.’

Remember the Law of Diminishing Returns
When you first start something, it is often possible to make enormous strides in a short period of time. For example, I live in Hong Kong and, when I started to learn Cantonese, I made a lot of progress quite quickly and before I knew it I could read quite a lot of Chinese and get around the place pretty well using the local language. But as time went on, I hit a plateau. This is true of many things – trying to lose weight is another excellent example.

The trick here is deciding what to do when you get onto the plateau. First, it’s probably not really a plateau, but simply that your progress has slowed right down. This can be called the law of diminishing returns. You keep working for less and less progress. Now you have a choice – either stop and be satisfied with the results so far, or keep going and achieve relatively less as time goes by.

The decision depends on the situation – if you want to be fluent in a language or you want to reach a weight goal, then you will have to keep going and find ways of breaking through to a new level of progress. If, however, you have other pressing or important tasks, the best option may be to settle for what has already been achieved and then move on. Neither option is always better – it depends on the context. But being aware of this phenomenon can improve your productivity by focusing your energies on where you can make the greatest progress, and can prevent you from being frustrated by working hard for limited success.

Understand the Limits of Your Influence
Lao Tzu, the semi-mythical author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote that ‘ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish – too much handling will spoil it.’ Lao Tzu seems to be saying that too much intervention (or should that be ‘interference’?) will not achieve the best results. A few moments thought will make it clear that we have almost no direct influence over other people and situations. People make their own decisions, usually (perhaps always) based on their own best interests. A skillful and perceptive person can sometimes align the best interests of the people in his sphere of concern with the outcomes he wishes to achieve, but this is often not possible, and this is perhaps why the results of our actions are so notoriously unpredictable.

In the end, all we can do is to ‘dance our own dance’ as the Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello would have said, do what we consider to be right, and leave the outcomes to a wisdom far greater than our own. This is not to say we have no influence, but the kind of influence we have is perhaps not what we expect.

Focus on Your own Happiness and Wellbeing
Aristotle wrote that ‘happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.’

Since we can have so little direct influence on the world, it seems to me that we are better off not focusing on how to change things ‘out there’ and focus instead on our own inner world. Our experience is, in a sense, an echo of this inner world. It sometimes seems that we are simply observing the world, that it is all happening independently of us. And yet this is not the case – the way we think and so the way we feel colors our experience and so influences the world in an indirect kind of way.

When you are happy, things seem to work better. Things go more smoothly, people respond more positively to you, more opportunities arise, there is more serendipity. Although we might sometimes think that focusing on our own happiness is selfish, in a sense, finding happiness is the best thing you can do for your own productivity and also for the wellbeing of others. Think about this – would you rather have a happy boss or a miserable one? Would you rather have a happy spouse or an unhappy one? I think the answer is clear.

The right attitude is everything. Approaching life in a relaxed way, flexible, working with the natural grain of things and being realistic about our influence will yield a great deal more than force. Isn’t it easier to walk around the mountain than to go over it?

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