Put intentionality to work for you

Watch the video version of this article here.

Personal branding is bizarre.

For companies, sure. Anyone can quickly summarize what popular companies do, are, or stand for. And companies play an active role in crafting their own image. They constantly reaffirm who they are. They stay on-message.

Now apply that concept… to yourself. It means: reduce all your imperfections, incongruities and interests into a coherent, concise and consistent image. Choose a niche, optimize your keywords, find an audience.

Except... you’re a person. Super weird.

We can try using our profession. SEO guru. Ambient music composer. Luxury housing realtor. But in doing so, we diminish the human we are when not working. It’s not particularly unique. And careers can change.

So I got greedy. My primary brand is that of an E-learning professional, but then I added two more words. Diluting my niche, I know. But I think in exchange for this indulgence I arrive at a concise brand that is almost satisfying.

E-learning. Productivity. Intentionality.

E-learning is simple. I love learning (and teaching) online.

Productivity is easy too. I’m not the only To Do List-er out there trying to get the most out of my waking hours.

But intentionality is weird. It’s not a buzzword. People aren’t blogging about it. But I can think of no better word for this concept I'm passionate about.

So, what does intentionality mean to me? Let me take a stab at this.

What is Intentionality?

My definition of intentionality has three aspects:

  1. Be present

  2. Make decisions

  3. Consider the why

Be present

Be present. Be mindful. Be purposeful in your actions. Do what you’re doing and nothing else.

We glorify our ability to multitask but we suck at it. The human brain cannot give attention to two things at once. So instead, we switch our attention from task to task. We measurably perform worse at our tasks while multitasking than we would if we completed one after another.

Very few of us decide to multitask. We do something. Something else comes up. A new email comes into our inbox and we feel compelled to respond. Then a coworker approaches our desk and we stop to listen. Suddenly a chat notification from our supervisor appears and we must engage.

That's not what I'm talking about.

Yes, work life gets chaotic. It’s not always possible to focus on a task without interruption. I believe that even with email, chat, and personal disruptions you can take back some control, but the most pervasive interruptions are ones that occur in your own head.

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How many times in the last five minutes have you thought about something completely irrelevant? Something you need to do later, some runaway train of thought, something completely random.

These micro-interruptions wreak havoc on our day-to-day lives. One study says that our mind wanders for 47% of our waking hours. This is surprising because we aren’t conscious of our wandering mind, much less able to control it. But it can be controlled.

Controlling my wandering mind is the #1 reason I was able to go from reading 10 books a year to 40. While reading, my mind would constantly wander and I would stop paying attention to the book. Eventually I would notice that I hadn’t turned the page in 10 minutes. I’d start again and make it another five pages before zoning out again. Progress was slow and frustrating.

I began to turn things around when Chris Bailey clued me into the idea of an “attention muscle” in his book The Productivity Project. Bailey advocates developing an awareness of your attention by practicing your focus on small tasks.

Pour your cereal. Sweep your porch. Make your bed. Do these things while staying completely in the moment. Don’t think about anything else but what you’re doing. When you catch your mind wandering, stop, bring your attention back to the task at hand.

It’s going to be hard. But if you can't willingly control your focus for one minute, imagine how much distractions control you when you're not on your guard. This action of bringing your attention back to the task at hand builds your attention muscle. Gradually the awareness of your wandering attention and the act of bringing it back on track will become easier and easier.

Make decisions

I’ve been obsessed with this idea since studying film in college (hey, it turns out you can get value from studying film!)

A film is comprised of thousands and thousands of decisions. Film school teaches you where those decision points are and how to utilize them to your benefit.

During one class, you might learn how the type of microphone, position and distance from an actor’s mouth can be used to create different psychological effects on the viewer. You add this knowledge to the hundreds of other disciplines within filmmaking which can affect the viewer.

The order of scenes. The position of the camera. The way an actor delivers his lines. The way the set is designed. The music. The colors. The pacing. The casting. The lights.

So many creatives making so many decisions.

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We don’t realize because a good film director holds it together by vetoing all decisions with negatively affect the film.

When an art director suggests a set design which would clash with the mood of the scene, the director says “no”.

When an actor’s interpretation of a character doesn’t make sense with the story, the director says “no”.

When the the audio is mixed and creates an unintended psychological effect, the director says “no”.

We don’t see the decisions being made, we are just affected by them.

The same is true in our work lives, except now we’re the director. We’re behind the camera but not sure who’s making decisions for us.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown pays special attention to the trade-offs we make, consciously or not. We take things as they come and generally believe that we can handle “one more thing”.

We say “yes, yes, yes.” Because it’s easier to say “yes” than “no”.

By going with the flow, doing what we’re asked, and accepting all opportunities, we’re letting others make decisions for us. The decisions are still being made, but they might not be in our best interests. Working intentionally means making those decisions yourself.

This means saying “no”.

Deciding that “yes” you will be present with your spouse, you must say “no” to the allure of your phone.

Deciding that “yes” you will spend weekends with your family, you must say “no” to encroachments from work.

Deciding that “yes” you will pursue a new career in another city, you must say “no” to your current city and community.

If the director never says “no”, they end up with a mishmash of a film. If you never say “no”, you end up doing a mishmash job.

By avoiding these decisions, we decide to spread ourselves thin, we decide to burn ourselves out, we decide to spend a long time accomplishing many things rather than a short time accomplishing the most important thing.

Working intentionally means preventing everything that does not belong in your life from entering it. Look for the decisions being made behind your back and take back control.

Consider the why

The problem with productivity in isolation is that productivity for its own sake is mindless busyness.

Why are you doing what you’re doing? Where do you want to be? Are you on the right track?

It’s pivotal that you keep the big picture in mind, but you can’t be preoccupied with it as you are doing your daily work. This goes beyond work, into your deepest life goals. That’s why I follow the proven pattern of scheduled reflections advocated by David Allen in his book Getting Thing Done.

At the core is the weekly review.

Every week I sit down with my wife and talk about how the week went, how well we met our goals, and what changes we will do next week. It keeps us focused and reflective. We catch the bad habits we’ve fallen into, gain some clarity to think about new things, and get motivated to complete as many goals as possible.

I also do daily reviews, where I compare what I accomplished with what I wanted to accomplish, then set the agenda for the next day. Together, these two reviews keep me focused on accomplishing what needs to get done.

But even weekly reviews do not give enough perspective to ask the really hard questions. I do monthly and yearly reviews, each taking a slightly wider perspective. But even those are simply derivatives from my five-year goals.

I started making five-year goals when I turned 25. I made a document titled “At 30” where I laid out what being 30 meant to me. Then I started making some concrete outcomes that I wanted to be true at that time.

While it was fun to dream about the future, it was also a challenging document to write. When you articulate your loose notions about the future on paper, you start to realize that not everything is realistic.

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It's natural for us to want everything and expect that with time we'll have them, but my first draft showed me how going with the flow wouldn't get me half of what I wanted. I had to accept some hard truths:

My career didn't have room for growth.

My professional experience would not serve my future professional goals.

I was ignoring the amount of new skills I needed to reach my professional goals.

I was fixated on a few skills that were interesting, but would not help my life or career.

The city I was living in was actually holding me back.

Those hard truths led to some hard decisions. My decision to pivot my skillset from video production to software development. My decision to abandon my study of certain things in favor of new skills. And most pivotally, my decision to move from my beloved Tokyo.

As hard as these truths were, I'm glad that I noticed them at age 25 instead of age 30. And that is really the goal of these reviews: to ensure that every action you’re performing is intentional. To ensure they are bringing you closer to the life you want to live and the person you want to be.

Distractions don't just affect our ability to concentrate, they can set us down a path that ends in disappointment. But by setting up a structure of weekly, monthly and yearly goals, you know that you can catch yourself before you make a big mistake.

At some point, you'll have to reconcile what you're doing with who you want to be. During reviews, any inconsistencies will become blindingly apparent.

* * *

Like productivity, intentionality is an aspiration. It’s easy to fail to be intentional, just as it is easy to catch yourself in moments of laziness. In fact, my focus on intentionality has only made me more aware of how often I fail.

But by committing to stay present, make hard decisions, and maintain a predictable cadence of reflection, I know that I'm giving myself the best chance I have at doing the work and living the life that I really want.