I heard the saying, “lash yourself to the mast” recently.  Not something we typically think about in this day of jets and teleportation…  (Ok, we don’t have that yet, but I’m sure it’s coming…)

OneDictionary says it means, “To continue in a course of action even when facing great difficulties and likely disaster. To resist the temptation to make a bad choice.”  It apparently came from Odysseus (in Homer’s Odyssey), where he ordered his men to literally lash him to the ship’s mast so he wouldn’t succumb to the temptation of the Sirens.

(The story depicted on an ancient vase…)


But it got me thinking – for me, what is the Siren’s call?  Easy:  $.  (Or Euro, Pounds, Rubles, and so on.)

It begs the question, “What is the course of action I want to continue on?”

Well, I wrote about money, and how it won’t buy happiness, a while back.  I heard a podcast recently that was more specific – money can reduce unhappiness to a point…

So, if money is not a course of action I’d lash myself to the last for, what is?

Enjoyment, contentedness, meaning

Why?!  Well, these things are fulfilling.  My opinion?  It’s what we were designed for.

My foremost position, my primary topic for podcasts and speaking, is this:

Measure your Mission

If you haven’t heard me talk about this phrase before, it comes down to this:  Peter Drucker, leadership guru, is attributed with (many variations of) “What gets measured gets done.”  He meant it as a little bit of a dig on managers who measure employee performance on # of widgets per hour, and don’t understand why quality goes through the floor when employees speed up to produce more.  There are countless other examples how mismeasurement results in unintended consequences.  

“Measure Your Mission” takes this concept and applies it to your mission, vision, purpose.  This works for companies (which is the focus of my consulting business) and individuals.

For me, personally, my (ineloquently worded) mission is to leave people and places better than they were before.

Tying a measurement or metric to my mission is a way of lashing myself to the mast.  It narrows my focus onto what’s important, rather than just the default, $.  (As a side note, I believe being smart about money is important.  No margin, no mission.  In personal life too – if you can’t pay your bills, it’s hard to focus on the most important things.)

I’m not perfect about this.  Here’s a great example:

One of my other businesses is real estate investing.  Sure, real estate is considered a great financial investment, but I always try to make it something more than money.  My wife’s good about this, too.

So, yesterday, when she was taking me on a video tour of three investment houses we just purchased – neglected, tired, overgrown – my thoughts were on the work required, the cost, and the revenue.  (Have to do those right, or these could be the last investment houses we ever do.)

But she said to me, in her loving way, “And we’ll be taking these empty structures and providing homes for people/families who need them.”

Measuring the mission:  When these 3 homes are done and sold, we’ll be +3 in providing homes to families.

How will you measure your mission?

(I work with mission-driven companies and organizations to help them remove barriers to scaling their companies and increase their impact.  If you’re a leader in one of these organizations, message me – I’d love to strategize with you about how Questful can help.)

There’s a scene in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World (geez, was it that long ago?!) where Wayne and Garth, the two main characters in the movie, are out playing hockey in the street.  An upcoming car honks, so the two call out to each other “car!” and move the hockey goal out of the street.  Once the car passes, Wayne calls “game on!” and Garth calls back “game on!”

(This movie clip has absolutely no relevance to what I’m writing here, but it went with the title and that scene cracks me up, so “Game On!“)

Slightly more related, I had an interesting time this morning, once inspiration to write struck, deciding whether to write first, or set up the pulled pork in the crock pot.  (The crock pot won.)

Why is this relevant?

Some would call this topic “prioritization”.  Which is more important to do at the moment?  Write?  Or cook?  In management speak, I might think of these things along the lines of the Eisenhower Matrix.  What’s important & urgent, what’s important but not urgent, etc.

From that perspective, I could say neither is urgent (except that the crock pot needs to go for 8 hours, so one might call it time-sensitive).  Both are important to me – I need and like to eat, and I love writing like this so I want to nurture the inspiration.

This is easy when making the choice between two activities.  But not scalable.

In life, we have a seemingly infinite number of options at any time, but not enough time, resources, or energy to do all of them.

Yes, that was a super long lead-up…

What Game Am I Playing?

This morning, I was listening (for the second time, actually…) to a podcast with Tim Ferris interviewing Derek Sivers.  As Tim Ferris says, describing most of his interviews, it was “wide ranging”, but the part that resonated most was a theme of recognizing what game you’re playing, and focus on that.

I’m sure we’re all aware by now that the more things you try to do at once, the worse you’ll be at all of them.

Yet, hard as I try, I still want it all.  Inner peace, minimalism, good health, a boat, a nice home, loving relationships, financial independence, and so on.

If I were to really make that list of what I want, I’m pretty sure I could reach a hundred things.  And with a high degree of confidence, I could tell you that some might overlap, but some will definitely conflict with others.

By contrast, we’re all aware of people who are single-minded on their goal and excel at it.  Not just the Michael Phelps types, but in a wide variety of “things we can excel at” – be it music or art, research or programming.  Often, though, if you asked one of them to whip up an omelet or mow the lawn, they would have no idea where to start.

So, is there a balanced approach to this?

I might start to think of it like this:  Have one or two things I want to focus in on – or, as was stated in the podcast, optimize or maximize for – and then find a way to squeeze in the things I have to do.

But what do we actually “have to do”?  Nothing, technically.  You might say, “But Matt, you have to eat!”  (And normally, I’d say “Heck yeah!  Let’s eat!”)  But in reality, I don’t actually have to eat.  Ever.  I just won’t like the end result.  So, no activity is ever required – we just have to be ok with the consequences.

The Formula

Find one or two (or three) things that I optimize for, combine the optimizing activities where possible, and keep my worrying and activities for everything else I do because of the potential consequences down to a minimum.

So, what would this look like?  I’ve mentioned in other posts that I value, and want, financial independence.  For me, that’s not Warren Buffet-level net worth; rather, it’s knowing I can cover my needs and wants without relying on others (or a job).  That can be achieved with winning the lottery, developing a robust passive income, or reducing my financial needs.  (I’m focusing on the latter two.)  And maybe there’s a second or third thing I’d optimize for.

Then, I might look at places where I’m mitigating against negative consequences (now I’m sounding like the consultant I am…), like health.  I enjoy learning about the causes and effects of various things on the body and mind, mostly because I don’t like the downside, not because I’m passionate.  Here, I’d want to figure out ways to do the minimum rather than nothing at all, in order to support what I’m optimizing. 

Finally, I’d look at my life to see what doesn’t fit into either of those two buckets.  Maybe those things need to go.

Exempli Gratia (I apparently value appearing “fancy”, with my use of Latin…):

I have cycled a lot in the past.  I’ve spent thousands of hours on the road, propelling two wheels forward with just my own energy.  I started as a kid, with a bike being my primary mode of transportation.  At 14, I got a road bike, and had long rides, either with friends or solo.  I’ve ridden all over the country, and have even thought about literally riding across the country.  I enjoy watching the Tour de France and other bike races on TV.  

However, I’ve ridden once in the past year.  My current bike sits right behind me in my office, I have riding paraphernalia stored throughout the house, a rack for the car taking up space in the shed, and so on.  The actual act of riding is no longer that enjoyable – sore butt, competing with cars and joggers, having to gear up every time, and all.  It’s become more of a burden than anything.

As I think through those things, the revelation that comes to me is that maybe what I like most about cycling is what it was to me in the past.  It was part of my identity then, but I’m kidding myself if I say it’s part of my identity now.

And yet, the pressure of “when should I start riding again?”, “what sort of shoes should I buy?”, “I need to clean and lube the bike”, all weigh on me.  It takes up emotional energy, which could have gone to good use elsewhere.

It’s quite possible that my best move is to retire my cyclist identity.

Why, Oh Why?

Like a two- or three-year-old, I ask “why?” often.  In this case, why are there so many things I want?  Whether it’s an identity (a cyclist) or a thing (a new barbecue), there have literally been tons of books written on the psychology behind this.

For me, it probably boils down to a few things:

  1. I still gravitate toward seeking others’ approval, or otherwise care what people think of me
  2. I’m not confident of my own identity, so I keep trying things to see what “sticks”
  3. I’m susceptible to messages that say “You should do this”, or “You should own that”

I don’t think I’m alone in those areas, but I can say confidently that those things definitely keep my life cluttered, and keep me from excelling at any given thing.

The Technique

So, I have distilled this concept down to a technique to gain some clarity on how to apply the formula to my life.  (Feel free to use this for yourself!)

Day 1:  Make a list of all the things you enjoy, love, feel passionate about, want, and so on.  Tips:  Do this while you’re in a good mood.  Make it exhaustive.  For most of us, the list could take up a page or more.

Day 2:  Make a list of all the things you “have to do”.  Taxes, clean the house, go to the gym…   Tips:  Do this while you’re in a “less than good” mood.  Make it exhaustive.  Feel free to categorize.  

Day 3:  Look at your Day 1 list, and see what items actually belong on your Day 2 list.  Tips:  You need to be very honest and introspective.  Recognize the things you “love” because of others’ pressure, messages, or approval.  Be brutal with the list (but not with yourself!!!).

Day 4:  Review your Day 1 list, and force-rank your top 3 items.  This means there are no ties, there can be only one #1, one #2, and one #3.  Tips:  Remember, this is YOUR list, not what others want you to say.  

Day 5:  Review your Day 2 list, and look for “have to do” items that can be crossed off because you’re willing to accept the consequences.  Tips:  This generally means the consequences aren’t very high, or because you have always assumed you had to do this thing.  If you get caught in an ethical dilemma, do what seems right, of course.  We’re shooting for improving your life, not “Breaking Bad”.

Days 6 and Beyond:  This is an ongoing review and refinement of your activities, in light of what came out of the first 5 days.  Do it daily, but limit the time spent – this is one of those things you’re doing to avoid the consequences.  Ask these questions:

  • Top 3
    • How can I do more/better in this area?
    • Are they still in the right order?  Do I still need 3, or are things better with 1 or 2 things?
    • Who or what can I learn from to improve this?
    • How can I make sure I continue to enjoy, love, etc. this thing?
  • Everything else
    • What things do I no longer need to do?
    • What things can be wrapped into my Top 3, without sacrificing enjoyment or improvement in the Top 3 area?
    • How can I minimize the time spent on these things?
    • What things can I delegate/outsource/ask someone else to do?  

Periodically, it may make sense to start at Day 1 again – life changes, priorities change – and this is highly encouraged.  However, don’t reset too often or you’ll create exhaustion, confusion, and so on.  Once a year, or after a significant life change, should be enough.

It’s my hope that doing this will create positive effects that ripple through your life.  An optimistic outlook.  More positive relationships. Success in however you measure it.

Game On!