By Leo Babauta
Our lives can be chaotic and overwhelming, and we can feel like we’re struggling to stay afloat. We feel behind, stressed, distracted, undisciplined, unworthy.
And in the middle of all of this, we want to do our meaningful work.
We want to create an impact.
How can we find focus and create some kind of meaningful impact in the face of this chaos and overwhelm?
I’m not here to claim it’s easy. I face it every day. But what I am here to say is that it’s possible. In fact, not only is it possible, it’s amazing — it feels even more meaningful because of the difficulty of doing it in chaos and uncertainty.
I manage to do it almost every day (some days I take a rest!) — and more than that, there are people in my programs that inspire me with what they’re able to accomplish in lives that can feel like they’re falling apart.
Let’s talk about how that might look, and some key principles.
Finding Focus in Chaos
I start my day feeling stressed, because it always feels like I’m already behind — I have a thousand things to do, and none of them were getting done when I was asleep!
I’ve come to accept this feeling, and even to recognize it as a sign that I’ve put myself intentionally into something meaningful and uncertain. This feeling means I’m not staying safe.
I try to start with meditation. Sometimes I have an additional practice or two. I feel the chaos and need to take care of all my tasks and emails pulling at me when I meditate. That’s perfect: I sit with the feeling of uncertainty and overwhelm as I meditate, and use it in my meditation.
Then I start working. I notice myself wanting to clear out emails and messages before I start on the meaningful task I’ve chosen for myself (usually chosen the night before). Often I’ll give in to that urge, and clear out a bunch of emails and messages. That’s OK — sometimes the uncertainty overtakes us. I call it “clearing the deck,” and it can feel restorative to clear things out.
Then I set myself to do the meaningful task. It can feel difficult, because I still feel chaotic. Why should I focus on this one thing when there are thousands of others calling for my attention?
Because I care about making an impact. I remind myself of why this is important. I get clear in my heart, and strengthen my intention in my mind.
Then I clear everything out, and create a space for focus.
Then I get started.
Creating an Impact
When there are thousands of things to do, how can we make an impact? Any one of those things can feel meaningless, because they’ll barely move the needle. Sometimes the feeling is that we’re just spinning our wheels, or treading water, and not making any progress. And at the same time, so many things are coming at you.
Look, I get that. Things can feel like a struggle, feel chaotic, feel scattered. I feel that way too.
But there’s an open secret to creating an impact: line up your stuff. Line up at least one task today with your mission, and things will happen.
For me, the lining up goes something like this: today’s task -> week’s targets -> month’s targets -> quarterly targets -> yearly vision -> my mission. That means today’s top task is lined up with the week’s targets (1-3 targets), which are lined up with the 3-5 targets for the month, etc. If I can line things up (roughly) this way … things start to happen!
Of course, you’ll still feel scattered, you’ll still feel like you’re treading water, you’ll still feel like you’re being hit by a deluge. That doesn’t go away — it’s the feeling of chaos. The secret of creating an impact is that you can still move mountains, still create something meaningful, while feeling this way. If you line your stuff up.
It’s not magic, but it can sometimes feel like magic. I’ll have a month that feels so chaotic, so much like treading water … and then at the end of the month, I’ll do a monthly review … and I’m shocked at how much I moved the needle. Flabbergasted.
So with that in mind … here are some key principles to take away for creating impact when you’re feeling overwhelmed:
- Accept the chaos. It’s not a problem, just a sensation that we normally don’t like. Learn to see it as a condition of doing something meaningful. Or for living.
- It’s OK to clear the decks — a little. Before you start with your meaningful task for today, you’ll get the urge to get a bunch of emails and messages out of the way. That’s OK, go ahead and get the most urgent ones answered, if you can do it in 15-20 minutes. Clearing a few things out so you can feel a little more settled isn’t a bad thing. Just don’t let it occupy all your free time.
- Line up your stuff. Have a target at least for this month, but maybe for the year as well. Or beyond. If you’ve set targets for the month, then set up weekly targets to move you in that direction, and then a daily task to hit that weekly target.
- Then focus. Clear everything away. Put your full focus on that one task that will win the day for you. You only have to do this once a day, but if you can do it 2-3 times, take a bow, because you are a god.
- Watch the magic happen. At the end of each week, see if you hit your targets. At the end of the month, look at what got done. It can still feel like not much is happening, but it can also be surprising how much you’re moving towards the impact you want to make.
Simple stuff, but we need to be reminded of this when things feel like they’re constantly falling apart.
Train with me: we’re doing an Impactful Focus Challenge in my Fearless Training Program in March!