In his new book Die Empty,Todd Henry explains how even bright and skilled people can become stagnant in their career and introduces approaches to help them create work they can be proud of. In this edited excerpt, Henry outlines strategies for identifying your priorities and your passions. Die Empty will be released September 26.
No army would charge into battle without understanding the battlefront. It would be mass suicide. Yet, many of us do this daily with our work. While most people have a good sense of the tasks and projects they're accountable for, they haven't taken the time to consider what they really care about and how it will find form in their work. They are lost in the fog of war.
Priorities are difficult. When you choose one thing to focus on, you automatically choose not to focus on others. You cannot fight on every front. You must choose you battles wisely and win them every time. These questions I've outlined below help you establish those all-important battle lines.
What will you stand for today? What will you refuse to compromise on, no matter what? What will define your terms of engagement?
One of my favorite mission statements is from the Boca Restaurant Group: "Blow People Away." It gives everyone from chefs to managers to servers an actionable operating code by which to approach their work. "Did I blow them away?" The question becomes a frame for evaluating every customer interaction, every meeting and every decision employees make. It's their chosen battle line. What's yours?
Your battle plan: Look at your calendar and your task list. Think through potential challenges you may face, and how you will deal with them if they arise. What will you refuse to compromise on? What battles will you be required to fight? How will you blow them away?
What do you know you should be doing, but have been ignoring? Frequently, entrepreneurs and creative professionals have an idea in the back of their mind that excites them when they consider it but they fear will become overwhelming and fail once they work toward it. One young entrepreneur that I met had been tossing around the idea for a business without even taking the smallest steps to make it happen. Every time we got together, he'd mention the idea and how great he thought it could be. Finally, I told him, "I don't want you to say another word about that idea. I think it's great, but it's not real. It's just an idea. Unless you're going to take a step toward making it happen I don't want to hear about it again." He looked at me with wide eyes. I don't think anyone had spoken to him so honestly before. By all indications, most people just told him how great the idea was, and how it was going to be huge – someday. We agreed that rather than talking about it, he would take one small step each day toward making it happen. Action defines reality, and "potential" is nothing but unproven, hypothetical value.
Your battle plan: Make a list of the things you know – deep down – you should be doing, but haven't taken action on. What are the logical next steps and what can you do right away?
Where are your "open loops"? These are the unfinished projects, the halfhearted efforts, or the unreconciled relationships. They are the projects that you're afraid to say no to, but deep down you know that you can't commit to. These must be either acted upon and made a priority, or immediately closed and put aside. If you have too many open loops in your life, your ability to focus on mission-critical things is diminished. You must become good at pruning your projects and commitments so that you have energy available for your most important work.
Your battle plan: Make a list of your open loops and be as exhaustive as possible. Examine your list and dedicate fifteen to thirty minutes today to act on an open loop and make progress in a meaningful way to close it.
The key takeaway is this: To avoid aimlessness, you have to stand for something. Don't allow aimlessness to rob you of years of your life. You will ultimately be remembered for – and your body of work will be built upon – the battles you chose to spend your time fighting. Act with urgency and diligence today to define your throughline and your battles, then carefully allocate your focus, time, and energy on things that matter to you. There are battles that only you are equipped to fight, and while I can't tell you what they are, I suspect you probably already know at least some of them. You need to act, and you need you to do it now. Run to the battle.