Accomplishing Meaningful Things

By John Wittler (Vilas, CO)

My initial response to the question, “How do you get so much done?” was one of dismissal and deflection. At times, I saw the question as commentary on whether I had too much on my plate or a commiserating mutation of our shared “I’m so busy” syndrome. Other times, I dismissed the question by acknowledging that the questioner really didn’t know what my days look like or whether I am actually accomplishing much or not. After fielding a steady flow of similar questioning, however, I began to reflect on my philosophies and approaches to work and life and my efforts at making a meaningful impact.

I feel hesitant to write about this topic because I am by no means an expert. I struggle – as I think we all do – every day. I often frustrate those I intend to serve by failing to follow up, neglecting communication, and making mistakes. Nevertheless, with my own shortcomings in mind, I reflected on each version of the question as I now heard it, “How are you involved in accomplishing things that matter without feeling overwhelmed?” The question itself, both energizing and unnerving, unlocks an answer that I believe we all strive toward on a daily basis. I have had the great privilege of participating in some very meaningful projects and endeavors and continue to have that privilege on a daily basis.

Some involve huge multi-year, multi-million dollar projects, some involve organizations with the potential to impact future generations, and some involve deep, meaningful, incredible, and complex relationships (foremost, my spouse and children). Yet, I rarely feel overwhelmed and never “burned-out.” With full acknowledgment of the “work in progress” nature of my practices, I wanted to share my philosophies and mental models that I have cobbled together in my pursuit of the calling of my life.

Let doing come from being.

In a world in which we are constantly assigned value based on what and how much we do, it is important to remember that who and what we are is not defined by what we do. My grandfather once told me, “Work is not your life – but your life is your work.” It took me years to understand that becoming me was going to take work, and a lot of it. Over time, the more “me” I became, the easier the things I “do” became. This is “the work behind the work,” and it is the most rewarding in every sense. Konrad Zuse (widely regarded as the father of the modern computer) once wrote, “The danger that computers will become like humans is not as great as the danger that humans will become like computers.” 

In today’s cult of productivity, we can so easily allow our identities to be formed by what and how much we do. We must remember that doing things isn’t the same as being productive, being productive isn’t the same as being useful, being useful isn’t the same as being valuable, and being valuable isn’t the same as being valued. Being valued is belonging (what we all need), and belonging is tied to purpose, not function.

Do things that matter.

This seems like a no-brainer, yet many of us spend our days doing an endless stream of things that, in the end, don’t always seem to matter. I don’t mean we should do big, flashy things that people notice – that approach would neglect all of the little things that sometimes matter the most. Instead, we should strive to discern what matters – or will matter – then give ourselves and others the freedom to leave the other stuff undone.

Part of the secret to “doing so much” is choosing which things to “not do.” We all have more to do than can possibly be done. We live in a world with more data, more information, and more things to do than ever before. We must develop the ability to separate the meaningful from the meaningless in our life and work. In 1971, Herbet Simon wrote, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon was right – we live in a world defined by a “poverty of attention” that leaves us unsure what information to use and what to do with it. By focusing on doing things that matter, we are forced to be intentional about where we direct our attention.  Developing a keen sense of what matters at any moment is perhaps our most powerful weapon in this fight. Once we know what needs to be done rather than what is being asked or even required of us, it is easier to focus our attention on what matters.

Know Your Purpose and Vision.

A deep understanding of our purpose and vision for what we are working for helps ground us in an empowering identity. That is the first half of knowing what matters. Being present is the other half. Truly being in the present moment and experiencing it fully with those you share it with is a liberating and transcendent practice. I have missed many great moments with my family because I was mentally or emotionally somewhere else. Likewise, I have missed many great moments and opportunities in my “work” because I was mentally or emotionally somewhere else. Sometimes, the “somewhere else” is “some time else.” When we are stuck in a past or future tense, we can miss our moment and rob ourselves and others of our humanity. Two important capabilities flow from the dual ability to know intimately your purpose and vision and truly experience the present moment: 1) playing the long game and 2) dynamically leveraging the uncontrollable and unpredictable elements of life to fit your vision. 

Playing the long game is taking an approach to life that doesn’t weigh any event or episode as more important than the whole and acknowledging that each has a place in the whole. Understand that everything is important, but nothing is too important. This helps feed an optimistic outlook without a naive outlook. In Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he outlines what he calls the Stockdale Paradox named after Admiral Jim Stockdale. The Stockdale paradox is “the ability to confront the brutal facts of your current reality, even as you maintain unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end, no matter how distant that is.” This is a long-game approach. 

Dynamically leveraging your situation to serve your vision allows you to see how every choice and every moment impacts your desired reality. Much like martial arts masters use their opponent’s momentum to accomplish their own objectives, we can use the momentum of the events of our lives even when they are challenging or negative to propel us toward a desired future. The key is  intimately knowing your purpose and vision and intimately experiencing the present moment. We must see and comprehend both simultaneously. We need to know the 30,000 foot view and see the ground level reality at the same time. This dual ability gives us the best chance to accomplish things that matter, in a meaningful way, without being overwhelmed.

John Wittler is the Executive Director of Ogallala Commons and lives in Vilas, CO with his wife Trina and their three children Alea, Emma, and Brock.

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