Focusing on What is Important

illustration of a guy in SUV with an arm out the window

I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s SUV, driving on a dirt road miles from nowhere in Big Sur, California—some of the most beautiful country on this planet. Looking out the window with my arm dangling along the side of the car, I realized that nothing was going on in my mind. That was weird… I couldn’t remember the last time my mind was free of swirling thoughts.

This was four years after my cofounders and I started our company, Interact, and ten years after I’d started my first business as an entrepreneur. Over those ten years, there really wasn’t a single moment when I was truly at rest and not trying to solve some problem in my mind. 

That carefree moment passed quickly though, and something else occupied my thoughts. I’ll never forget that moment because it felt so different from the chaos that had inhabited my world for so long. 

Arriving at the point where my mind was clear took a long time and came after many struggles, but the catalyst that broke it all free was a five-minute meditation done inside my tent that morning. I had practiced breathing and letting thoughts go as they came to mind. It was something I’d learned from my business coach and decided to try. He encouraged me to give it five minutes to see what happened. 

It wasn’t just that. I’d been working with my coach for years and seeing a therapist for a while, but what I remember most is that meditation and how it changed my way of thinking forever. 

When running a $2 million a year company, there’s always something that can take my mind for a ride. Each morning when I wake up, it’s like I’m in a race that already started, and I’ve got to catch up.

illustration of guy at starting line of race while others have already taken off

During the four years before that day in Big Sur, I had embraced the idea of every day being a sprint. I would wake up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning to maximize my time, following all the advice of the business gurus. 

I was really good at it, and got interviewed on a bunch of podcasts about how to be efficient and do the most things. But I was exhausted. I realized my efforts were too frantic to be a true long-term strategy.

I had no true north, no sense of what was important, no list of priorities—so I did everything and I was miserable. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way to get all the tasks done. I felt like a failure, like I wasn’t good enough. 

In that state of mind, anything that was not work felt like a burden, including time spent with other people and taking time for myself. I was in a glass box of my “priorities,” which were tasks I thought would make me more successful and achieve the goals I’d thought I wanted to achieve. 

It was only through getting all the accolades from the podcasts and shows I would appear on that I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted after all. I was getting commended for how successful and inspirational I was, but inside I felt like I was just a dog chasing its tail, going faster and faster but ending up in the same place and never actually achieving what I wanted to achieve. 

In getting to the level of “success” I’d imagined would make me feel better, it dawned on me that the answer was not to do more. I was doing the most, and people commended me for it, but inside I was worn out and unhappy.

I began to slow down and think about what truly mattered to me in my work. And so I chose a handful of meaningful tasks to do every day. 

I’m applying this to my personal life as well. For example, I am currently moving (again), and it’s so easy to chase all the little tasks: Should I pack up the glassware to make sure nothing gets broken? Where do I hang the prints in my new place? Did I remember to set up the internet?

I can get pretty stressed out by all that, but I wake up each morning and start the day with a meditation (which has been my routine since that day in Big Sur). In my meditation, I imagine there’s a river running by, and my thoughts are paper boats that I place in the river and then wave goodbye. 

After twenty minutes of this practice, things start to clear up. I let go of the chaos that currently inhabits my living room. I remember that what’s important right now is to write, take care of my mental and physical health, and invest my energy in my relationships with my partner and friends. As I write this, it’s the holiday season, and that is very important to me.

illustration of guy releasing paper boats in a lake

I know that my way is not the only way, and that it’s not perfect. Many days during my “meditation,” I get consumed by my thoughts, never getting to the part where I let them go. Even so, I try every day. It’s been the first thing I do when I wake up for the last three years. 

Taking time to stop and think about what’s important has changed my life for the better. It’s made my work so much easier to manage. It’s something I plan on continuing to do daily, as I marvel at how it makes all the difference.

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