Using Intention to Stay Present
One of the simplest yet most important lessons I’ve learned from obsessing over productivity is to get the right things done. Working in order of priority is about 95% of the game, and if you can figure out how to execute on these priorities, you will go a long way. But for an extreme optimizer like myself, even if I am acting in priority, the fear that I might not be is a source of stress.
A good example of this is with my old workout routine. I had a high-level vision for what my strategy was: hit the gym almost every day and rotate between different exercises and muscle groups so I could get stronger. Because I’d developed a fair amount of discipline and working out had always been a habit of mine, I executed on the plan pretty well and was able to achieve what I wanted. But, even though in retrospect I did what I needed, I always found myself stressed that I was doing too much of a certain exercise, that I was taking too many rest days in a week, or that any given workout wasn’t the right one for that day.
What I’ve realized since then is that there is value in not only doing the right thing but also knowing you’re doing the right thing.
Now of course what’s “right” is subjective and there probably is no “right” thing you can be doing, but what I’m talking about here is gaining the security that you are acting based on the well-thought-out priorities you made and plans you previously created.
To demonstrate what I mean by this, I want to tell you about my current workout routine. Because I’m training for a marathon (to raise money for a very important cause), I created a spreadsheet with all the run distances I need to complete for the next few months. And I also created a rule that I would have 3 strength workouts a week and 1 yoga session. Then, before every week, I sit down and layout when I want to perform each workout. Because of this system, when I go on my run Monday morning, I feel confident that I am in the right place, doing the right thing, to accomplish what I’m after.
The point here is not that you have to plan your entire life down to a T or that your gameplan has to be perfect. Rather, it’s about being explicit about your strategy for how you want to get from where you are now to where you are heading, no matter how uncertain you may be. This intentionality can free you up to be present when it’s time to execute.
Something I recently talked about in an article that is very relevant here is the mental model of the Pilot, Plane, and Engineer. I’ll re-summarize it here: At any point in our day, we are assuming one of these three roles and regularly switch between them. The Pilot is the role that decides your direction, meaning what you should spend your time on/work on. The Plane is the role that actually executes, so you when you are doing your workout or finishing that assignment. And the Engineer is the systems designer that is you when you are optimizing from a high-level so doing things like deciding what type of job you want or how to design your mornings.
What I’m prescribing here is that you let the Engineer and Pilot do their jobs designing your systems and setting your direction beforehand, allowing the Plane to execute without constant interruptions from the Pilot. In my example, this manifests itself when I’m starting my workouts. I trust that the Pilot and Engineer did their jobs and my system is set up correctly. All I do now is perform the workout. I’m in the moment rather than questioning if I should be running further or doing a different type of workout on this day. Even if you’re not sure where you want to head or if you don’t have the perfect plan, separating the optimizing time from the executing time is key.
One of the broader themes of my own personal development has been figuring out how to find enjoyment in the pursuit of our goals. Being intentional about my strategy for whatever I’m working toward is another trick I’ve learned for staying grounded in this process. Doing so allows me to be released from the stress of over-optimization. Note that the Engineer and Pilot will still play a pivotal role in improving the system over time, but when it’s the Plane’s time to go, I let it fly.