Time, Attention & Intention
Published: 20th March 2022
Have you ever found yourself needing to organise every facet of your life to the ‘nth’ degree, just to feel some semblance of control?
And yet, you end up finding out that this over control often doesn’t help you achieve what you were hoping to? Or that it doesn’t change the final outcomes? Or that it leaves you with regrets when you realise you could have handled things differently?
This season on Creating Cadence we’re looking at Intentional Productivity, because I’m writing a book about it.
And in this episode of the podcast, I’m sharing a personal story related to productivity that focuses on that need for control. Something we all have issues with in some parts of our lives, and some of us more than others.
In my case, I built a whole career around trying to be in control. And where that ultimately got me was up the creek with a bad case of burnout!
Hi and Welcome, this is Creating Cadence – a podcast for life and work in motion. I’m your host Mich Bondesio, a writer, coach, consultant, and the founder of Growth Sessions. And this is episode 28 and the third slightly delayed episode in Season 5 of the Creating Cadence podcast.
So welcome back and apologies for making you wait for this episode. I’ve had quite a few projects on over the last month, which have been great, but as a company of one they have also really stretched my capacity.
And as part of purposefully managing and maintaining my wellbeing and productivity with intention, when situations like this arise, it’s part of my playbook to make a choice about sacrificing something in the short term. So that I can keep moving forwards over the long run and I can keep producing my best for the other things that might be more important at that moment in time.
In this case, because the podcast isn’t currently sponsored, I’m my own client. As much as I adore podcasting, which I do, I’m not currently being paid to do this, so it was the thing I had to unfortunately put on hold.
But we’re back and in this episode, as I mentioned earlier, I’m going to share an insight about my previous career experience and how my perception of productivity has shifted dramatically since then.
And the reason, I’m doing this is that I’ve just finished reading Oliver Burkeman’s interesting book “Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals” and it brought up a few things that are connected to Intentional Productivity which I think are are important.
So, if you’re ready let’s dive in…
So first the back story…
Before I started Growth Sessions in early 2018 and before I had checked out of life for over a year due to a bad case of burnout, I had previously spent more than 20 years building up a career utilising my communications and project management skills.
This included working as a production manager in the film industry, making TV commercials. Managing projects in design and digital marketing agencies, and a lengthy stint as a freelance operations manager working on large scale corporate events. All of these roles involved working in high pressure, deadline-driven environments where organisation was important.
When you’re involved with big projects for 9-12 months at a time, that eventually culminate in a big event or a series of events that happen over a short space of time, you find yourself living those events several times over before they actually happen.
That can be really helpful, because you are constantly envisaging how the event will turn out and that means you are so prepared by the time it comes around, you know what needs to happen like the back of your hand. And whatever happens on the ground (and there’s usually some kind of doo that hits the fan), you’re better equipped to manage it all really well.
The downside is, in my experience, that while you’re working on this long term project, you end up living and working solely for this event, so you’re existing in the future all of the time, which means you’re not very present in your present. And the people and relationships and other things that may be important in your life can suffer as a result.
Bear in mind, for me, I was doing this work almost ten years ago and at the time, I didn’t yet have the tools or skills to help me live and work more intentionally.
It was only after I stepped away from project management as a main role in my work, that I realised just how much it ruled my life. It made me not only manage my projects, but it made me try to project manage everything else in my life too, much to my family’s irritation at times.
And I also realised that the reason I felt the need to manage things to the nth degree, was because of my anxiety.
For me, anxiety became a sidekick from quite a young age because of a mix of societal and familial factors, as well as some personal experiences.
To manage my anxiety, I needed to feel in control. And to do that I had to be managing things all the time. So in my work, I was on the go all the time. I had to keep busy. And I had to organise everybody and everything. And to try and be everything to everyone.
And I can tell you that apart from it being pretty exhausting, there are plenty of women out there, especially in my generation (which is Gen X), who may relate to feeling the need to be this way. And who are probably feeling as exhausted as I was all the time.
For me, always doing something to make something happen was a coping mechanism. To help me feel more in control and to help manage my anxiety.
The reality is that we actually have no control. So what I also realised after the fact, was just how much this kind of work actually exacerbated my anxiety.
It prompted me to try and do more, so I could feel more in control. When what I should have been doing was accepting that so much was out of my control.
Instead, I was sacrificing my present in favour of an imagined future. Not just in my career, but also in my life. The signs were there for so many years, but I didn’t know how to stop for long enough to just be, so I could reflect on them.
This eventually all led to severe exhaustion, mental fatigue, depression and even more anxiety. And that part of the story is covered in another episode.
Now just to be clear … project management is in itself not a bad career. It can be quite lucrative and rewarding. And I wasn’t necessarily crap at my job. I was actually quite good at what I did. And that’s why I kept doing it. But I didn’t go to university with the express desire of becoming a project manager. It was something I kind of fell into, because I demonstrated an aptitude for it.
So, I was good at it. But the problem was, it wasn’t good for me. It didn’t serve me. And I was doing it for the wrong reasons.
Nowadays, I still get involved in occasional events projects, but now I am very selective about which ones I take on. And I deliberately select projects with a much shorter timeline, as this works better for me now with my other work. And as the solopreneur part of my business grows, I take on less of these projects, as I have my own to take care of.
There are no regrets for spending 20 years in a career that looking back didn’t serve me, because it did serve a purpose the time. And I’ve found changing careers in my 40s is not a loss, because all of that past experience has benefitted me and helped me in developing my entrepreneurial projects.
I doubt I would have been as prolific or disciplined in producing what I have in the last four years without my project management experience.
Nowadays, my work is designed with purpose and defined by more meaning. I’ve now purposefully chosen a path that fulfils a higher purpose for me, one that is more important than being in control or curbing my anxiety.
It’s given me autonomy, which is different from control. It’s given me freedom from things that control. It has given me an experience that is more aligned with my values and my life goals. One that supports my health, creativity and wellbeing better.
And the unexpected bonus, I’ve found of living and working in a more mindful and aligned way, is that anxiety doesn’t ride shotgun so much anymore.
Whatever stage you are at in your journey. Please ask yourself the following questions…
What purpose does your work fulfil for you?
Does it give your life meaning? If not, does it need to?
Does your work serve you and your needs? Or have your needs changed?
There’s no right or wrong answer here… it’s just important to remember to stop and reflect. Because, as Oliver Burkeman points out, most of us only have roughly 4000 weeks in our lives and we should be using them to live the life we dream about instead of just dreaming about it.
Instead of sacrificing our present for an imagined future, we can be making the most of the present.
There’s a few points he makes in the book about our attention that I want to connect to this experience I’ve just shared.
In “Four Thousand Weeks”, Oliver quotes Nietzsche
“Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
We find ourselves in a world where we are always busy and always on. There are always things coming at us. And much of the time they are things that distract us or keep us focused on the wrong things.
It’s also uncomfortable being present with ourselves, especially when our situation isn’t that as we would want it to be, so we do things to take us away from it, literally or figuratively.
And, so we sometimes do everything we can to avoid being present. And that is what I was doing to manage my anxiety in my previous. And that is what most of us are doing now because the war on our attention has fractured our attention, to the point that distraction and autopilot is the norm. And we have become addicted to stuffing our faces with content.
So we are not in control. But we haven’t accepted that and left things to chance.
Instead we have given over our control to someone or something else. That may be several big organizations, which have got you addicted to their products (so they can make money off you using their products). They are the thing controlling you, your responses, your actions, your behaviours.
This is a bigger issue than you may realise. Because spending time focused on the wrong things doesn’t help us live our lives with meaning and purpose in the time we that have. It just helps us waste our time. And it shapes our reality in ways which aren’t always a true representation of the world around us.
As Oliver says “What you pay attention to will define for you what your reality is.”
He also quotes psychologist Timothy Wilson’s research into attention, where he found that as humans, we are only capable of consciously paying attention to about 0.0004% of the information that bombards our brains every second of the day.
If we are only capable of truly paying attention to 0.0004% of that information that’s coming in that shapes our reality, then we need to be really selective about what we choose to bombard ourselves with.
To paraphrase Oliver,
Attention doesn’t facilitate our life, attention is our life. And at the end of our life, whatever compelled our attention is what our life will have been.
And distraction doesn’t only refer to momentary lapses of focus.
So your job could be a distraction. Some of your relationships, or hobbies, or habits could be a distraction.
There are activities, jobs, and behaviours that we are investing our attention in (and therefore, as Oliver says, investing our lives in) that are actually less meaningful to us in the long run. Less helpful to us in the long run.
What are you doing in your life that is an avoidance tactic?
What are the other things you could be choosing to do instead?
How can you change your approach to your life? To live and work in a way that has more purpose and brings more meaning, so you can embrace and appreciate more of the short time we have on this planet.
If you have thoughts about this episode or a question relating to the topics I cover on this podcast, then I’d love to hear from you. You can write to: hello at creatingcadence.co
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