Resolutions that Stick, Session 2: The Nitty Gritty

This is the second Session of three that will help you make resolutions that stick. If you are just jumping-in, go here for a start and then Session 1 before tackling Session 2. Where Session 1 of Resolutions that Stick dives deep and comes at the bigger picture, Session 2 gets a little more detailed and comes at the nitty gritty day-to-day. Where Session 1 could actually be scheduled into your calendar as a kind of vision quest, Session 2 will take multiple shorter sessions, spread-out over days and weeks. There’s just so much detail that gets uncovered here, that you will want to break-up the work: trying to define and refine your buckets, projects, actions, and when you are closest to them (i.e. planning and thinking about family matters during the weekend, work matters during the work week, and side projects during the early-morning or evening hours).

Onward!

Part 4: What are your Buckets?

As I’ve said before, the only certainty that we have is that death can come swiftly, and unexpectedly. That death is rarely planned, and so on. For those who don’t plan and contemplate their suicide, the closest we may get to a plan is a gloomy prognosis from a doctor.

As a result, you don’t know if your purposeful work on this earth will be stopped short. Ultimately some of your buckets will be filled with work that will remain unfinished when you die.

Because of this, I think that the term “bucket list” is wrongly used. Because we don’t know when we will die, every list of projects (part 5) and actions (part 6) that we need or want to finish, is part of a bucket list (i.e. as in “before ‘I kick the bucket'”). The list of grand adventures, vacations, and accomplishments (what we commonly refer to as the bucket list) actually belongs with your visions and dreams back in Session 1.

So, I use the word “buckets” instead of containers or themes or “areas of focus and responsibility” (as David Allen does), because I want the sense of urgency to be palpable: everything category of projects and actions that you need or want to do, must happen before you die.

David Allen barely gets at this existential anxiety when he defines “areas of focus and responsibility” as:

“Important spheres of work and life to be maintained at standards to ‘keep the engines running.'” (David Allen, Making it All Work, 298)

This is confusing because the only thing “keeping the engines running” is our continued existence, not our “areas of focus and responsibility”. Everything else is the work, creation, effort, and so on, that we want to complete before we stop existing–before we “kick the bucket”.

Further still, by thinking of the good work that you need and want to do in terms of fuel–the implicit gasoline metaphor behind “keep the engines running”–your work is framed as feedstock that continuously powers an engine. There is no prioritization of what needs to be done. Just feed the engine with a steady supply of busywork and go.

If instead you think of these spheres as bucket lists, then this will help you better prioritize what goes into them, when, how and why. You can never fully escape busywork, but you can be smart about how much of your precious time you spend doing, delegating, deferring or deleting busywork.

By thinking of the spheres of your work and life as something that can and will end, you will invariably seek to find your greater purpose in all that you do, AKA the meaning of your life:

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.” (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 98-99)

So, with Frankl’s fine words in mind, some questions:

  • “What are the important spheres of my work and life that I am currently focused on?”
  • “How is my destiny differentiated from where I stand today?” (Depending on where you are at in life, you might have so many things to do under one bucket that you should split a bucket into two or three. At other times, it might be better not to define a bucket at all. Life is always changing. So too are one’s priorities, constraints and opportunities. How you compartmentalize and prioritize your work will change over time.)
  • “What are some common themes that I notice in my work?” (If you are having trouble defining your buckets, you can start with projects (part 5) and actions (part 6) below. Or you can go back to your goals, objectives and fears (part 3 in Session 1). You can be sure that whatever your buckets look like, they will have goals associated with them and projects and actions within them.)
  • You might also identify some major buckets in your life that have no goals associated with them, but a lot of ongoing actions. This is OK. It means that you are content with where you are at! If you aren’t content, ask yourself: “What do I wish to change? What do I need to do? When do I want to start and end this good work?” You might want to change something, but are comfortable deferring this work for some time. That’s fine, but don’t leave it for too long!

Part 5: What are your Projects?

These are the outcomes that have to happen to achieve your goals, but they require a bunch of different actions (usually phased over a span of time). Project Management International’s (PMI) definition of a project is helpful here: “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” And they go on: 

“A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.”

Many of us are familiar with projects. But to give you an example, I could have a project in my “podcast” bucket, for instance, that is geared towards finding and working with a co-curator to develop a season of podcast episodes on a certain topic. Projects take a specific amount of time and coordination, and there’s a bunch of different actions associated with them.

For the kind of planning work that we are doing in these posts, I would suggest avoiding using actual project management tools. Save it for later if you need to. Instead, as a loose start I would mind-map some of my projects in a notebook using some questions from David Allen’s Natural Planning Model. Even if you don’t actually mind map this, you usually either consciously or unconsciously consider:

  • The purpose. “Why is this being done?”
  • The future. “What would it be like if we were totally successful? How would I know?”
  • Your ideas. “What are all the things that occur to me about this? What is the current reality? What do I know? What do I not know? What ought I consider? What haven’t I considered? etc.”
  • How to organize everything. “What needs to happen to make this whole thing happen?”
  • What you are going to do next. “What should be done next and who will do it?”

Part 6: What do you have to do? What are the actions that need to happen?

This is your to-do list. Some of these actions are associated with a project, others are stand-alone. This is what you can do, right now, to get something done. To be sure that you’ve thought something through sufficiently enough to act on it, David Allen argues that you need to be able to answer these three questions:

“What has to happen first?

What does doing look like?

Where does it happen?” (Allen, 174)

If you can’t answer this, you have to rethink your work. David Allen is at his best when it comes to the concept of Next Actions:

“Identifying the next action runs neck and neck with defining the desired outcome in terms of generating value in a given situation. But if I had to choose between those two questions that would be the most effective in increasing productivity [‘what’s the next action vs. what’s the desired outcome?’], I’d unhesitatingly pick “What’s the next action?”

Why? Because I’ve seen too many people come up with a confident response to what they’re trying to achieve, but have the whole effort falter because of a lack of clarity in what, specifically, to do about it. When. on the other hand, someone takes the responsibility to determine the next action a project, he will almost without fail begin to bump his focus upward and integrate that thinking into the higher levels of his commitments. Whats the next step? Yeah, but in order to do that, we need to decide if… Oh yeah, that brings up the key issue about whether we’re actually going to… and so on.

… Grappling with the answer to that question occasionally surfaces very fertile issues at higher horizons that often need to be dealt with, and often that’s the only way we can actually start to identify and confront them.” (Allen, pp. 174-175)

It seems that iteration is built into this process, for once we arrive at the finest level of detail, we find ourselves going back to Session 1 to refine and clarify further.

So, since it bears repeating, the question to ask yourself here is:

  • “What’s the next action?”

If you’ve come this far, you may find yourself saying “this is all well and good, Mr. Morales, but it seems like a lot of work. How am I supposed to make any of this actually stick? How am I supposed to execute all this… especially when I am at my worst?”

Stay tuned to Session 3, where we tackle these questions. Because for all the well intentioned planning, and personal organizing, the rubber hits the road in that moment when, after a heavy lunch, you sleepily stare at your computer screen and (if you’re lucky) ask yourself “should I check my Facebook notifications, or should I do what I know needs to be done?” If you’re unlucky? You don’t even think about your choice: you just find yourself on the other end of a distraction timewarp wondering how you got to 4PM.

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