Hackernoon logoOutline Your Life by@MikeSturm

Outline Your Life

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@MikeSturmMike Sturm

or Run the Risk of Failing to Live it.

Climb up to 50,000 feet.

Can you quickly, and without hemming and hawing, answer the following 2 part question?

What are you doing right now, and how is that contributing to the overarching goals for your life?

If your answer is something like “I’m scrolling through Facebook right now , and, well, I’m not sure about the second part of the question”, then perhaps my message can be of benefit to you . You see, one of the most insidious sources of anxiety for so many of us is being at odds with who we want to be. But worry not, because we mostly already have an idea of who we’d like to be, we just haven’t made it explicit and front-of-mind. Making that idea explicit, and acting on its behalf, is a contributing factor in building and maintaining a life that you enjoy living, and that you can be proud to live.

About 2 years ago, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it changed the way that I looked at almost everything I do. I’m not going to say that it miraculously changed my life, I realize that really only I can do that, and given the work it takes, it will hardly seem miraculous to me. But GTD (as the insiders call it) allowed me the head-space to step back and take a look at two important things: how I get things done that I want to do and why I choose to do the things that I do. David presents a useful heuristic to help one think through their respective duties and tasks — it uses altitudes.

  • The “runway” level: the small projects and associated tasks that you’ve undertaken in the short term, like going to the grocery store to pick up coffee and dog food (which reminds me…)
  • 10,000 ft. level: the list of projects to which you've committed.
  • 20,000 ft. level: your job and obligations
  • 30,000 ft. level: the bigger picture of your job, in terms of where you are aiming to be 1–2 years from now.
  • 40,000 ft. level: the goals and purpose of your job, your work, and/or your company. Things begin to get pretty abstract here.
  • 50,000 ft. level: the overarching purpose in your life, your big goals, your endgame.

When I was forced to think at this 50,000 ft. level, I began to see that so much of my frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, irritability, and pretty much any other negative feelings, came from failing to ascend higher than 10,000 or so feet. The second thing that struck me is that while I thought I knew what I’d find at the 50,000 ft. level when I got there, upon serious reflection, I surprised myself. I was amazed by how many of my goals were not at all fleshed out; some even seemed to clash with one another. The third and final thing that I discovered was that so many of the things on my lower 2 levels, and even the 20,000 ft. level, were just not important from the 50,000 ft. vantage point. To me, that was a clear indicator that a new initiative was in order. I had to ensure that the next time I flew up to 50,000 ft., when I looked down at the runway (professional pilots, please hold your commentary about how unfeasible that is), everything there still made sense.

Simply put, if your runway consists of any tasks that don’t help you get to your goal at 50,000 ft., consider just not doing them. That may sound scary, but that’s the beauty, it’s really not. Not only that, but as long as your day is filled with tasks that don’t contribute to your overarching goals, you will be stressed, anxious, and essentially at odds with yourself. Here’s one approach to cleaning off your runway, and gaining some peace of mind along the way.

  1. Take your current to-do list, in all of its cluttered glory, and hide it from view.
  2. Take out a new blank list medium (paper or digital, your choice). [note: I have to give a shout out to a web-based platform for this called Workflowy. It is elegant and so very useful for just this purpose.)
  3. Start at 50,000 feet and list no more than 5 major goals for yourself, leaving space under each one to fill in some items later. Take at least an hour to do this (really think it through).
  4. Take out your original to-do list and place it alongside your new 50,000 ft. list.
  5. For each item from your original to-do list, attempt to place it in the space under one of your major goals on your new list. Skip any items that you can’t place within a minute or two. Cross each item off of your original list as you place it.

After those 5 steps are done, take a deep breath; you’re on your way, but there’s one last step to do. You will have to spend some time with each of the items on your original to-do list that you couldn’t place under a goal on your new list. If you really want to hop on the fast track to enlightenment, crumple up this crowded to-do list and throw it away (along with all copies of it). After all, why are you tasking yourself with projects that don’t comport with your overall goals? That may be a bit too radical for most people, and I understand that.

A less radical step in the right direction would be to simply store this old list in a place out of view and don’t look at it for a week or two. Pay attention to only what’s on your new list, and see if anything from the old list pops up. If it does, then reevaluate where that project fits into your life. Does it really fit into one of your 5 goals, but you didn’t make the connection before? Is there some goal that this project works toward, but you didn’t consider it as a goal before? Ask these types of questions, and get yourself thinking about the real reason why things are on your radar. But always be prepared to find a way to just sweep things off of your radar, keeping only those things on that contribute to your (now) explicitly stated goals. Remember: just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should. Be judicious in what you choose to take on; if it doesn’t fit in the outline of your goals, you probably shouldn’t do it. You’ll end up with a lot of things you just aren’t doing, but now, you can feel good about not doing them.

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