In the past few months, I kept looking for the answer of one simple question – “How do I live a life of purpose and values while remaining productive and stress-free?“. While looking for the answers, I garnered lots of wisdom, practices and insight partly by learning, partly experimenting and implementing some key principles.
While my productivity and quality of life has risen manyfold it was not an easy journey. To save all your time and effort in finding the right answers, I decided to put up a rather long compilation covering the 6 key practices I have learned after hundreds of hours of study and reflection.
This article may take a few minutes to read, so get yourself focussed on doing one thing at a time, which is – reading this article.
Tip: While you are reading this article, take out pen & paper and challenge yourself in putting at least one practice to use.
1. Find your Self Compass
The Self Compass is the fancy word I use for Self Awareness. Self-awareness is often mis-understood under the titles of spirituality, religious practices or meditation. It’s really not the case. Here is the definition of Self-awareness on Wikipedia:
Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.
One of the biggest challenges of our times is the lack of understanding of our own abilities and inclination. Many of us struggle, not because we do not have a talent but because there is a gross lack of “awareness” of it. We struggle because we go in directions given by our past constraints and perceptions, which often lead us to the wrong places.
So the first step in living a highly productive and remarkable life is identifying your passion and inclination.
The easiest way to develop Self-awareness is to ask yourself questions that instigate self inquiry. Here are some possible questions you can ask yourself:
What are the core values of my life?What kind of things inspires me?If I had 10 million dollars in my bank account and only 10 years to live, what would I do? What kind of dreams did I see in my childhood?
Here are 4 simple rules to develop Self-awareness:
- Do it Alone – Don’t ask Other’s about Your “Self”
- Don’t Judge – Do not judge yourself. Self awareness is just being “aware” of yourself and not to come to certain conclusion
- Write until you feel free – Capture resulting thoughts on a piece of paper. Write everything and read it. You can do this several times until you experience freedom.
- Don’t be in hurry – Don’t do it as if this is just another task. This is the most valuable time you can ever spend. Do it when you are not in a hurry and you have at least an hour to spare.
Once you become Self Aware, your ability to take actions will dramatically increase because you have a good sense of direction – you are guided by your Self Compass. I found this step to be the hardest one because it requires rigor and courage. If you get past this phase, rest of the journey an be much more pleasant.
2. Develop Clarity and Focus
As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without cultivation, so the mind without culture can never produce good fruit – Seneca
A clear and focussed mind is the source of powerful actions. In his remarkable book, Kamal Sharma explains how one can maintain the Focus of a warrior and Peace of a monk by practicing silence and stillness. Here is a simple yet powerful analogy described in his book to develop clarity and focus:
Imagine your mind like a glass full of water mixed with mud. You cannot see through the glass because the water is dark and muddy. If the glass of water is steered all the time, the mud in the water will never settle down and you will never be able to see through the water. However, if you kept that glass still for sometime, the mud will settle down and in just a couple of hours, entire mud will be settled at the bottom and the water will be clear. You can see through the glass again.
Just like the mud in the glass of water analogy, our mind is full of ‘thoughts’. Conflicting situations, changing priorities, peer pressure, family matters, relationship issues and a lot more. Our mind is racing at 160 miles an hour, pumping thoughts like a formula one car on a freeway. This is the dynamic state of mind, we call it – mud mixed with water. You do have the ability to slow it down and separate the mud from water.
Here is a simple way to develop clarity and focus in your mind:
Sit down and relax, close your eyes and stay calm for 30 minutes. You will notice that all your thoughts will begin settling down gradually. At the end of this exercise, your mind will be clear like water in the glass with mud settled down. You can clearly see though all available options because your mind has the space needed to think clearly. According to a research, decisions taken by a calm and peaceful mind are usually the right ones than the decisions taken in a hurry or in a state of chaos.
If you practice stillness and silence even for 10 minutes daily, it will have a remarkable impact on your Clarity and Focus.
3. Organize and Prioritize
We often get stressed due to multiple priorities, projects and deadlines. There is just a lot going on and we can’t handle it all. As a result, we experience a gross lack of perspective and control in our lives. The simplest way to eliminate this clutter is by organizing and prioritizing. It might take one hour or four hours (depending on the clutter in your life) but in the end, you will be much more relaxed and focussed.
Write down everything you need to get done on a piece of paper. Capture everything that comes to your mind, small tasks, big tasks, long term goals, short terms goals, immediate actions – everything. Classify everything you have written down into 3 categories – Goals, Projects and Tasks. Here is a short guide to help you distinguish between Goal, Task and Project:
Let us imagine that you are planning to go on a Vacation. In this case, here is how your Goals, Projects and Tasks might look like:
- Goal: Going on a Vacation
- Project: Book Tickets
- Tasks: 1)Research destination, 2)Look into calendar for dates, 3)Call up Agent to book tickets
Goals are generally your broad definition of a major objective or accomplishments. Projects are the resultant activities emerging out of your Goals. While Tasks are the actual “action” items you can do physically at any point of time. Making a call, writing a document, searching on Google are all tasks. While projects are items which entail multiple steps or tasks.
Look at your list and classify each item by the category it belongs to. Write ‘G’ near the item which is Goal, write ‘P’ near the item which is Project and ‘T’ near the item which is a Task. Next, identify the most important priorities out of these. What goals or projects will free you up the most? What are the most burning items which when taken care of will relieve you or make you feel great?
Once you identify your top priorities, a lot of less important things will just go away. Now you have razor sharp focus on doing the most important things first and then handle the rest.
4. Visualize Outcomes
Identifying and articulating clearly defined outcomes makes a whole lot of difference in accomplishing your projects and goals. Our brain has the natural ability to visualize outcome. This has been nicely articulated in David Allen’s GTD system. Here is an excerpt:
Suppose you are out for a dinner. What initially caused you to think about doing it? – was that to satisfy hunger, socialize with friends, celebrate a special occasion or sign a business deal. As soon as any of these turn into a real inclination, you have a clear intention. Your intention was your purpose. The next immediate thing you will think about is the ambience, quality of food and service, affordability, convenience and comfort. These were your principles that guided your purpose of going for dinner. And as soon as you have your purpose and principles in place, you probably also imagined some positive picture of what you might experience or how the evening would turn out – may be the people involved, the atmosphere and/or the outcome. That was your outcome visioning.
You need to follow these three steps to visualize your outcome:
- Identify the purpose
- Define the principles
- Visualize the outcome
Outcome visioning is a way to vividly visualize and experience the end result which is consistent with the success of a project or goal. For all your goals and projects, you must visualize your outcomes clearly and vividly. Clearly visualizing your outcome will give you the energy and motivation to accomplish it. It will bring greater certainty to the result.
Take your outcome and put it in physical existence around you. You can create a chart in front of your desk which captures your outcome in the form of a slogan or visual. The more your brain is exposed to “visualizing” the outcome, the more power it will generate to accomplish it.
5. Consume Low Information Diet
Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. – Albert Einstein
In a world flooding with free information, we have started consuming it more than we can digest. What was the last newspaper article that you found to be useful in your area of influence?
Every information that you consume has to be processed, stored and indexed by the brain. Your brain is working tirelessly (almost uselessly) to process the huge inflow of information from TV, Internet, Social media and other sources. Too much information creates information sickness and alienate you from real life.
In his book 4 Hours work week, Tim Ferris has nicely articulated the principle of “low information diet” to produce optimum output. Start practicing low information diet. Stop surfing endlessly for the hot deal or the latest new gadget. Keep yourself focussed to the minimum information you need. You can discipline yourself by promising to spend at max 30 minutes surfing the web and 30 minutes reading blogs. Follow the ritual of one book at a time and keep your reading limited to most important topics related to your area.
6. Reflect and Refine
Living a life of purpose and stress-free productivity is akin to learning an art. You keep reflecting and refining yourself as you climb up each stair. With constantly moving parts we need to constantly learn and maneuver along the course.
The difference between a good maneuvering and bad maneuvering lies in Reflection. Reflecting on your experiences brings Wisdom. Nothing is more valuable than the Wisdom you develop for yourself. Here is how you can do it:
On a typical day or at least once a week, look at what worked in your life, what did not work and what you can learn. Look for things which gives you energy and try to do them more. Reflecting upon your experiences will make you wiser and allow you to make smarter choices.
You have the insight, the practices and the skills to use them. You have a gift. I want you to Poke the box and start a practice. Right now!
What did you choose to do? What’s the purpose of your life?