In the employment world, entry-level employees do what others tell them. If they stick with the daily grind, they receive incremental raises and the perks of seniority. By staying busy for long hours at the office, they show loyalty. Managers take note and award incremental raises and promotions. But entrepreneurs inhabit another world in which going with the flow is disastrous.
“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” ― Daniel H. Pink, Drive
Busywork may sustain the long-term employee, but it destroys the entrepreneurial spirit. The compliant business owner can never succeed. When we react instead of being proactive, we miss out on opportunities our initiative would create. Focusing on critical work would move the company forward, but our habit of “staying busy” kicks in. Before we know it, we have spent eight hours doing things we cannot recall and look back with regret on a day filled with missed opportunities.
“It’s the little things in life that will bite you.” — Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect
When I sat down to write this article, I noticed that my laptop’s virus scan definitions were out-of-date. I updated them and started a virus scan. Then I discovered a software application I no longer needed and uninstalled it. A clean uninstall required a restart of my computer.
Five minutes later, I noticed some more unused applications and deleted them.
You would think the accountability of writing an article about trivial pursuits would be enough to stop this kind of busywork. It is not. Even with all the information, our default inclination is to bypass our real work. It is difficult to avoid distractions even when it is vital to our success to do the work that moves us forward.
How is that article I wrote last week performing? I wonder. It would be easier to follow my curiosity about myriads of trivial things than to bring new ideas into existence. The twin fears of rejection and irrelevance provide fuel for focusing on the past. But evaluating my previous work runs the risk of celebrating its success or hanging my head in defeat. In either case, I am accepting a diversion from the real work at hand.
“People love to argue minor points, partially because they feel it absolves them from actually having to do anything.” — Ramit Sethi, I Will Teach You to Be Rich
We gaze into our past performance for clues to our future when it only merits a passing glance. But we should focus steadfastly on the future. In business, the world of analytics deals with the past. Analyzing lagging indicators can help us learn and improve our future performance. But magic happens when we focus on leading indicators by asking, What actions can we take now to create future success? In comparison to taking proactive strategic action, analysis of past performance is useless.
Busywork and scorekeeping are both reactive modes of being. We want to please others rather than create a positive impact. The expectations of others pull on us so forcefully that only a concerted effort to take proactive action every day can pull us out of its grip.
“What’s simple to do is also simple not to do.” — Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect
While it is simple to avoid distractions and trivia, it is not easy. James Clear describes habitual behavior as a loop. His book Atomic Habits describes four components of a habit.
Cue: The conditions that trigger a habit
Craving: The desire for the result of a habit
Response: The action we take
Reward: The payoff of the habit
When we face a day of strategic work, our fears can lead us to avoid it by doing trivial work instead. The immediate payoff is a feeling of busyness, but the long-term cost is that the world will not hear our voice or enjoy our work.
As a Christian, I believe in a spiritual realm as actual as the tangible world of sense perception. It is in this world that creativity resides. Our work brings ideas from the spiritual world into the material world. We give spiritual realities a concrete expression others can understand.
Each person has unique experiences, gifts, and interests. These raw materials are the material from which God forms our authentic voices and potential impact. Because of this, I seek out deep conversations with people about the importance of their work.
To connect with ideas and people, I avoid trivial busywork and scorekeeping. Though I sometimes struggle to focus, my reasons for working are usually enough to defeat my attraction to trivial pursuits. What is the work God has given you? Does your calling have enough clarity to draw you into deep work on the things that matter to you? If not, here are some simple habits that will help you.
1. Morning Meditation
Connect with your inner world in the morning. Spending a few minutes in quiet prayer or spiritual reading can open your soul to the things you value. And if God does exist, he is speaking to us. Reflection with an uncluttered mind can allow us to receive from him.
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” — 1 Kings 19:11-13 ESV
A few minutes of simple reflection and openness to hearing from God can transform our world. God rarely speaks in dramatic external ways, so rely on the proven methods of quietness and reflection.
Rebel against compliance, busywork, scorekeeping, and reactivity by creating something daily. Keep the bar low so you can always succeed. Do you feel called to write? Write a few words or sentences and celebrate. You have kept the trivial at bay and begun to fulfill your life’s work. Can you do this every day? Yes!
The same is true whether you are a designer, builder, programmer, visual artist, or retail owner. Only you can do your work. Be a rebel. Reject the status quo, and do what is of utmost importance today. Then do it again tomorrow. Bring into existence the dreams and potential that lie deep in your soul.
Are you unsure of what to create? Then follow the fear. I believe there is an enemy of our souls that seeks to silence us. Whatever God has placed within you that is most beautiful, valuable, and unique is hidden beneath a layer of hurts, fears, and failures. Unearthing it is sometimes painful, but the result is powerful. Run to the fear, push past it, and take a risk. Make it a daily habit.
“You don’t have to be a genius. Find a scenius.” — Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!
I wish this were not true, but I fear it is. The world celebrates mediocrity and creates systems to produce it. Because of this, choosing to create something valuable is an act of rebellion — and the world will resist it. To overcome resistance, you will probably need champions who believe in you.
The setbacks and misunderstandings you will face cannot be overcome alone. Fortunately, the world is full of people like you who need champions. You can connect with others and create a community that empowers you to live with purpose and to make the impact for which God created you.
The cultivation of friendship and community is the ultimate success habit. Yet of all the practices that undergird success, it is the hardest. The vulnerability inherent in genuine connection feels risky, so we want to avoid it. But we shouldn’t. A caring community provides a context for personal growth and learning we cannot find elsewhere. Friends who share your vision offer invaluable counsel.
These books have helped me understand the importance of clarity of purpose and the power of community to fuel our creative energy.
When you create daily meditation, creation, and connection habits, you are on your way to discovering your unique gifts and calling. Equipped with that knowledge, you will find the power to push past your inherent bias for trivial pursuits over meaningful work. Your community will call you on your attempts to impress them with disingenuous work.
As the days pass, your choice to create will become habitual. The world does not feel right until you’ve expressed what God has entrusted to your soul for sharing. The momentum of your past choices will begin to push you in a healthy direction. Existence will take on a new purpose, and you will make an impact.
Confession: While writing this article, I checked my phone several times to see reactions to my comments on Reddit. I opened Facebook to check direct messages and to see how others reacted to my posts. Accept my words as those of a fellow traveler who has found a map but needs to learn to follow it. I hope I can encourage you to do what is already burning deep within your soul.
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