The main thing

It is going to soon be 8 years of daily writing on this blog. During these 8 years, I’ve spent 2 years or so as an undergrad, 4 years as a consultant and about 2 years as a graduate student. During this time, there have been a collection of other projects on the side. But, in every one of these phases, there always was a “main thing.”

Toward the end of my undergraduate years, it was finding a job. As a consultant, it was delivering quality work for clients. And, as part of my graduate student experience, I’d say thinking about career direction, then switching careers and now preparing to give it my best shot is the “main thing.” For simplicity, I’m going to categorize all of these under “Professional” and put everything else I do with my time under the “Personal” category. If I have to now think of the “main thing” personally, it has always come down to one thing – building and maintaining a collection of strong, meaningful personal relationships.

I call these the “main thing” because there is such an incredible amount of noise – more so today than ever before. There are so many avenues for people to hear about what you’re doing and give you feedback – whether or not you want or need it. But, if you’re looking to create value, it is particularly challenging to cut through the noise and focus on what matters. Do the number of likes on your most recent post really matter? What about the number of people who said they’d come to that event you’re hosting?

The “main thing” idea is very helpful because it puts everything you do in perspective. For example, when I go back to the full time work world in 3 months, the main thing professionally is doing great work. Everything else is secondary. If I am able to do that, it is likely it will spill onto everything else I do – e.g., I will likely have richer insights to share here. And, if all goes well, insights from the act of reflection here will spill back onto my work. But, the main value driver in the long run will still be the work. Similarly, I may have 2000 friends on Facebook but it won’t matter if I don’t feel strongly connected to a small group I trust. As Stephen Covey once said, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. This isn’t easy but having clarity on this greatly helps separate the signal from the noise. And, the quality of our lives is directly proportional to the ability to keep the main thing the main thing.

Once you identify the main thing, it is easy to understand what single thing you do drives value. In my case, that single thing is “deep work” time – time I have carved out where I am focused 100% on my work or the important people in my life. No email, no phones and no nothing else.

So, simplifying this whole thing further, the quality of my life is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend in deep work mode. You might object to calling time spent with those close to us as “work.” But, I’d argue being 100% present takes work. Mindfulness, the same concept as “deep work mode” is hard.

It was only a year or so ago when I first realized this. And, it has greatly simplified how I think about my day and my life. Over the past 3 months, I’ve been working hard to be more mindful about scheduling “deep work” time. And, yesterday afternoon, I felt a certain discomfort as I was about to get some food. As I dug a bit deeper, I realized that I was feeling that way simply because I hadn’t spent a chunk of time in a state of depth for 2 days. Something or the other had come up and I had worked on multiple projects and felt my attention was very fragmented. I was itching to sit down, shut off distraction and focus on an afternoon and evening spent in depth. So, that’s what I did. And, it felt great.

Through all of this, I am probably most pleased about that discomfort I experienced. It reminded me to do what drives value in my life. And, long may that continue.

the main thing

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