Units of Meaning

On Monday’s live quarterly planning review call in Conscious Growth Club – which spanned more than 5 hours – I shared some tips about thinking in units of meaning rather than units of time.

Many years ago I tried a system of writing 4 hours per day. I did it for 30 days straight but really didn’t like it. It didn’t help me create the kind of relationship that I wanted to have with writing, and it took daily discipline to keep going with it. I felt relieved when I stopped. That might be a fine system for someone else, but it wasn’t a good fit for me.

Each day I filled the 4 hours with writing and editing, and I would stop shortly after I hit that time. The writing I produced during that time was stunted and uninspired.

A better system for me is that when I start writing a piece, I begin with an inspired idea and then do my best to finish, edit, and publish a meaningful piece the same day. It doesn’t matter whether it takes 45 minutes or 5 hours. I like to forget about the time, enter a timeless state, and enjoy the flow of ideas and energy and the feelings of connection and centeredness. Thinking about the passage of time or trying to hit a time quota or word count is entirely the wrong framing for me to do my best writing. It’s much better for me to focus on one article (or one course lesson) as a unit of meaning. It takes as long as it takes, and I prefer not to stop till it’s fully done and published.

Trying to write for 4 hours fatigues me. But writing and publishing an article energizes me, even if it takes 4+ hours. The framing I use has a huge impact on my motivation, energy flow, and enjoyment of the experience.

The Most Meaningful Step

The act of publishing is the most meaningful step in this process. When an article gets published, other people can read it, and I can also mentally let go of that piece of work. Then I can take a break and move on to something else.

Last year I published something new to my blog every single day, and it was relatively easy. If I had tried to write for an hour per day or to write 1000 words per day, I think it would have been a miserable year, but by focusing on units of meaning (i.e. daily published articles or videos), I actually enjoyed the experience.

This also aligns with what I shared in the previous post about finding your best motivational fuel. When you spend a day at Disneyland, are thinking about what you can accomplish within the span of an hour? Probably not. You’re probably just deciding what ride to go on next. Time isn’t a unit of meaning at Disneyland. Units of meaning include going on rides, seeing shows, watching parades, having a meal, taking a cool photo, and so on. A day at Disneyland is about racking up meaningful experiences. And the peak experiences will often matter more than the overall quantity of experiences.

Do you fill your days with blocks or time or with units of meaning? Which do you find more naturally motivating? Which do you find more satisfying afterwards?

If all I do in a day is publish a new article or do a CGC coaching call, that makes the day feel pretty satisfying. But if I put in 10 hours and don’t accomplish any real units of meaning because I just picked away at a bunch of minor items, the day doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying.

Having satisfying experiences is good for motivation and momentum. Putting in a lot of hours, by itself, is not. If there aren’t enough satisfying units of meaning in those hours, the hours can become draining.

Sustainable Motivational

October 1st was the 17-year anniversary of my blog, so I’m now gliding into my 18th year of continuous blogging. I still enjoy it and intend to continue.

How many other bloggers have lasted this long – especially without leaning on guest posting? I receive almost daily requests from would-be guest posters, which I just delete (sometimes in bulk). Some time ago I asked my readers if they wanted guest posts, and they were almost unanimously opposed to it. And working with guest posters feels less meaningful to me than simply writing.

I still don’t write on a set schedule. I have no weekly or monthly quota for new material. I just write and publish something new when an inspired idea strikes me, and I sense it would be worth sharing. This attitude has yielded a happy, healthy, and sustainable relationship with blogging.

One thing that keeps my motivation strong and sustainable is that I primarily work in units of meaning, not time.

When I complete a unit of work that feels meaningful to me, it means I’ve reached a good stopping point where I feel satisfied with what I’ve done. My brain is able to relax and let go of certain items because the thought energy of those items has run its course.

If I write part of an article and stop for the day, my mind is stuck with an open loop. This is neither satisfying nor restful. If I did this regularly, it would add stress and tension to my life. So almost every article, video, and audio that I’ve published was conceived, written, recorded (if necessary), edited, and published all in the same day, usually in one continuous flow of action. For longer pieces I may have taken some breaks along the way, but I generally prefer no breaks or only very short breaks. Once I start a piece, I like to stick with it till it’s 100% done and published.

Meaningful Units of Coaching

I realize that I prefer a similar frame for our group coaching calls.

It’s not a great unit of meaning to try to stop at a certain fixed time for each person or for the whole call, so we don’t really have a set time limit. I’ve tried to lean in that direction sometimes, and it never quite felt right.

It feels more natural when we reach what feels like a reasonable transition point. Maybe we didn’t get to address every possible angle, but at least we can discuss and process what feels like a healthy unit of meaning for each person. We don’t have to stop mid-thought just because we hit a certain time.

This approach is actually more energizing and less fatiguing for me than if we are leaving too many open thought loops unresolved.

Fairness is an important value, and I consider whether fairness ought to be based on time or on units of meaning. Is it fair if I talk to one person for 15 minutes and another for 30 minutes? From a time perspective, that may seem unfair. But it takes a variable amount of time to reach a good unit of meaning for each person. One person may have a straightforward challenge that takes less time to address, which another person may desire some help unraveling a more complex, multi-faceted issue.

I like to think of fairness as doing my best to offer everyone who does the live coaching a healthy unit of meaning. I like for each person to feel satisfied with what we’ve covered. I still pay attention to the time because while I’m coaching one person, other people are watching and waiting – and also sharing their own comments as we go. So I’m aware of the passage of time, but I try not to be too aware of it. I find it best to stay in tune with the meaning and purpose of what we’re doing.

If someone brings up a really thorny or emotional issue on a call, it wouldn’t feel good to stop prematurely. I want to help them take a step forward, and sometimes that takes extra time for certain kinds of problems. What happens if we’ve been talking for 20 minutes already, and now the tears start flowing? Am I really going to say, “Uh well, I feel for you, but your time is up, so let’s bring up the next person”? No, we’re not going to do that.

Even when I did one-on-one coaching, I would charge a certain amount per phone call, but there was no set time limit for the call. We only ended the call when the other person was satisfied. I was never the one to end it. We would usually talk continuously for a few hours. If we needed to, we would take a bathroom break and keep right on going. I think this was a much better way of aligning our units of meaning than if we only talked for a fixed length of time.

Ignoring the Clock

Being too mindful of the clock can ruin otherwise good experiences. Trying to hit a certain time target can you off before you cross the threshold into a great unit of meaning. I made some big mistakes there when I younger, especially when trying to wrangle my creative projects to hit arbitrary deadlines.

In Conscious Growth Club, some of our group coaching calls have been going really long lately, at least by the standards you might see in other groups. The durations of our last 4 calls were: 5:34, 4:08, 4:47, and 5:05. During each call I might coach about a dozen people.

This is a continuous flow of “work” for me, usually with zero breaks. I think maybe twice I’ve taken a quick bathroom break partway through, and then we kept right on going.

What seems to surprise some people is that my energy, focus, and enthusiasm stay high throughout these calls.

I’m sure it helps that I eat plants, exercise regularly, and sleep restfully. But I think it’s also important that I do this coaching in a way that feels motivating and not overly draining. Sometimes I do feel a bit tired after the calls, but normally that only hits me when I stop; then some parts of my brain feel like they’re going into rest mode. While I’m doing the coaching, however, I normally feel super engaged with it. Even after a 4-5 hour call, I sometimes don’t want to close Zoom and log off.

I think a key reason for this is that during the call, we rack up so many units of meaning that the experience feels very purposeful, intimate, and energizing. I also really love the mutually supportive vibe that we’ve created in the group as we help people solve problems, figure out tricky decisions, and take their desired next steps. I think I’m boosted by the positive, compassionate, and often playful energy that we create together on these calls.

We started doing these group coaching calls in 2017, and I enjoy them even more today than I did during the first year or two. Even though the calls have gotten considerably longer, the experience has somehow felt increasingly timeless, as if time matters a lot less than I originally thought it should. Meaning and purpose matter so much more than time.

On Monday we did a 5+ hour quarterly review call, which is a process we do once per quarter. This was our longest one ever. And oddly I found this call the least fatiguing one of all. In the past I would watch the clock more when preparing the reviews and also when sharing them, and this time I relaxed more regarding the time. This allowed me to share even more than usual.

I shared my commentary on the goals of 21 CGC members on the call, and my notes for the call (which took days to prepare) were more than 21,000 words. I used those notes to talk about members’ goals for 5 hours continuously with zero breaks. Even as we got to the end, my energy was still good, and I was still very much enjoying it. The main limitation was my voice’s ability to hold up for that long, and Rachelle graciously helped by bringing me some ginger tea with lemon to sip.

We have another regular coaching call this afternoon in CGC, and I’m looking forward to that as well. Interestingly it seems that the more I relax about the time and just go with the flow of the experience, transitioning based on units of meaning, that seems to yield the best motivation and enthusiasm and the least fatigue. So it’s really the same pattern I discovered with writing by applied to coaching. Ignore the clock as much as possible, and stay present to the flow of the moment.

It’s fascinating that by ignoring the clock, several hours of continuous work can feel motivating and energizing, but even one hour may feel draining if you’re stuck dwelling on the time too much.

When you’ve experienced some of the best flow of your life, feeling energized instead of drained, how much were you watching the clock?

As you flow through more activities and experiences, consider thinking in units of meaning instead of units of time. Instead of constraining your life based on days and times, allow yourself to flow through units of meaning, sticking with each one long enough until you reach a satisfying and natural transition point. Seek to discover the units of meaning that energize you instead of remaining loyal to units that deplete you.

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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