I have a long to-do list. I bet you do too.

As a creative person with a large imagination and a raging case of ADHD, who is mostly introverted and moderately depressed, I often don’t get everything done I want to get done. And at the end of the day, when I am looking at that long to-do list with the things not yet done on it, it is easy to get overwhelmed, which only makes it more likely that I will get less done tomorrow.

So I have a simple hack I use to get stuff done: Make sure I have one “win” every day. I identify a win as anything that moves me closer to any degree to my goals. So, since I want to eat healthily, eating a healthy breakfast would be a win. I want to have strong relationships, so writing an emotionally hard email would be a win. Or maybe I ran today, or maybe I sat on the couch and took the day off, but read that book that has been on my to-read pile forever.

The point is, at the end of the day to be able to look at what you have done and realize you had at least one win. Now, you probably had more than one, and that’s great, but you only need one, and you need to recognize it.

If you only had one a day, that is nearly 400 times you made positive moves toward the future you want in a given year, and that is pretty amazing and powerful by itself. But also, going to bed while not being frustrated with yourself is life-giving.

Using units to structure your time

Those of us who are in the helping professions seldom end up having 40 hour, structured workweeks. Instead, we are often responsible for creating our own schedule, which always involves other people’s schedules, which can lead to long, unstructured days.

For instance, I have an office, but am only in it three to four hours a day, with the rest being nighttime meetings, breakfast meetings, coffeeshop meetings, or time spent out in the field. And I still have paperwork to do and writing to do, and all the other sorts of things people expect me to do.

If I’m not careful, I can end up having a day where I have a breakfast meeting at 7:30, get to the office at 9:00, have a lunch meeting at 1:00 PM, spend time in the field until 6:00, where I grab something in the drive thru on my way to a seminar I am supposed to teach at 7:30 PM, and finally get home at 10:00, exhausted.

And for many of us, this sort of thing happens all the time. It is really easy to have a workday that spans 12 or 14 hours, and we wonder why we are exhausted and burned out.

Or maybe we are really good at sticking to eight hour days, but we end up giving up our days off to “just catch up”.

A technique I have learned that has really helped planning my days and weeks. It goes like this:

Your day is split into three units: Morning, afternoon, and evening. You have two goals – don’t work more than two units any given day, and don’t work more than 12 units in a given week.

For the days, you shouldn’t work all three units in a given day. So, if you know you are going to have night meetings, schedule your day so you are not working that morning or afternoon. If you have a full day packed from 9-5, don’t schedule anything that evening.

For the weeks, if you know you have to work Saturday morning and have a presentation Tuesday night, you are already starting the week with two units filled. Throw in a Thursday night meeting and we are up to three, which means, if 12 is our goal, that we can’t work full days the rest of the week.

I find this much more helpful (and realistic) than counting hours. It is easy to wrap my head around, easy to plan around and imposes structure. It turns your calendar into more than a device for recording your appointments and meetings, but rather a framework for structuring your life.

Question: Do you have any “rules” for structuring your week?

Running toward the fire

A long, long time ago, I went through Infantry School in the United States Marine Corps, where they taught us how to “locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and/ or repel enemy assault by fire and close combat.”

Marines study such things, and they purport to be the best in the world at it.

And in Infantry School, they taught me that if you are walking along, and suddenly your squad is ambushed, the thing you have to do is turn and run toward the fire.

You won’t want to. You will want to run away from the chaos – it’s only human. But if you do that, you will die. Guaranteed.

The only way to survive is to override your instincts and run toward the fire.

I think there is a lesson there that is applicable far beyond war zones.

* * *

I was telling this anecdote to a friend the other day, and she said that the fire wasn’t just when you are being attacked: The fire metaphor works in other circumstances as well.

“When you are in a world of shit, some of your friends will run from it to save themselves. And others will run toward the fire, instinctively, to save you.”

I told her I wanted the second kind of friends.

“Oh, I do too. But the problem is, you don’t know who will run toward the fire until there is a fire.”


The legend of you

Fed Ex was based on an idea Fred Smith had in college. He shared the idea in a paper, which got a C because of the idea’s impracticality. Nobody thought it would work.

In the early days of the company, it looked like the skeptics were right – it wasn’t obvious they would make it.

Sometimes drivers didn’t have enough fuel to do the whole route, so there are stories of drivers pawning their watches to get cash to fill the trucks themselves, because the packages had to be delivered.

A mentor of mine who was an early executive there said that it was not uncommon for his boss to come to them and ask how much cash they actually needed that pay period, and to ask if they could take the balance of their check in stock.

And of course, it is well known that one particular week when they couldn’t meet payroll, Fred Smith cleaned out the bank account and went to Vegas and won the money to make payroll on the craps tables.

The stories are legendary. And that’s my point.

When Smith was faced with a payroll bill he had no hope of paying, I doubt he felt like a business genius. I bet he felt like a failure. If the only way your business works involves your drivers paying out of their own pocket for the gas to do their routes, I bet that doesn’t feel like a win. Looking your executives in the eye and telling them they can’t get their whole paychecks this week can’t feel good.

No, I bet none of that processed as “winning”.

The reason I am telling you this isn’t to say that Smith didn’t quit, and quitters don’t win, and rah, rah, rah.

No, the thing I love about these stories is that now, 30 years later, Fed Ex brags about them. If you go to work there, they have people come into your orientation class to tell you the stories. They brag about the early failures, the missteps, the times it almost went under.

It has become part of the legend of Fed Ex.

Legends are funny things. They exist, and they grow over time. They are stories we tell to make sense of things that happened. In retrospect they seem almost foreordained.

Like a wise old man who has been through the war and lived to tell about it, Fed Ex has scars that taught it things, and, they believe, made it better. In fact, made it who it is. They are the stories they tell themselves about themselves. 

In the moment, however, the people those stories are happening to are not processing them as history. I bet George Washington had tons of self-doubt that freezing Christmas night when he crossed the Delaware River to surprise the enemy.  Washington’s men were starving and literally freezing to death. But now? That story is legendary.

Thinking about this idea – that failures and bad experiences are the stories that will shape us in the future – has changed how I process and deal with those bad things.

When you are going through the dark times, ask yourself, “What will I learn from this? In 20 years, how will I describe this time? If I am mentoring or talking to someone then who is going through what I am going through now, what will I tell them? What advice would I give them?”

In short, ask yourself, “How will this contribute to the legend of me?”

Figuring out your calling

When I am working with people who want to figure out their calling (which, you may remember, is different than your job), I will give them an assignment to help them figure out their belief system, because I believe our calling is an expression of our belief system.

Here is the assignment:

Buy a cheap notebook and pen. Carry it everywhere with you for 90 days. Every day, you have to write in it at least once, answering the question, ‘What do I believe today?” Your answer can be bullet points or paragraphs, but you have to answer the question every day. If things come to you multiple times in a day, you can have multiple entries for each day.

This is what you believe about any and everything. It can run the gamut on any given day from spirituality to parenting to Marvel vs. DC comics. The entries “I believe Batman is really about a spoiled rich guy who is stroking his own ego” and ‘I believe Pema Chodron is a brilliant writer” are both equally valid as entries.

If you are at the end of the day and feeling uninspired, writing, “I believe this is a stupid assignment” is totally valid. But it’s important you do it every day, and it’s important you do it over a period of at least 90 days. You want to capture you in different situations, different moods, different seasons, even.

At the end of the 90 days, grab yourself a cup of coffee, sit in a quiet place and read the pages. Look for trends. Everyone I have done this with, the answers immediately popped out at them.

I still do this periodically. Here is a sample of various entries I made in an early notebook that pointed me to where I am now. None of this should surprise anyone who knows me, or my vocation.

Note: My examples below tend to be spiritual in nature, but they need not be. The exercise is agnostic – it doesn’t care what you believe, but I guarantee you believe something, and that your vocation is found in that belief system.

What do I believe today?

I believe scripture is best understood in community.

I believe in prayer, but I believe it most effective in community.

I believe we resist community, which is how we know we need it.

I believe God is most perfectly revealed in relationship.

I believe that my relationships reveal not only who I am, but who I want to be.

I believe that how I love “the other” is how I love God.

I believe that any hope this world has for survival, let alone redemption, is going to come about because of our ability to love each other.

I believe we are sustained by love.

I believe that the community is the smallest unit of health, and that to speak of a “healthy individual” is to speak of a contradiction in terms.

I believe all change comes about because of our relationships.

I believe God is love.

I believe community is hard. But not as hard as not having community.

I believe in original selfishness more than I believe in original sin.

I believe an ethic based on “the other” is the single greatest contribution the teachings of Jesus has given the world.

I believe love wins.