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Some Field Notes on Working (and Living) Purposefully

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I make the transition from working in my business to working on my business?

Taking Care of Business

Dear Taking Care,

What’s interesting about your question is that you could swap the word business for marriage, career, life or just about anything else and the dilemma wouldn’t change. I say this to point out that you don’t face a business challenge per se, but a focus challenge. At least that’s what I’m going to assume since you’re writing us and not Shark Tank.

You sound busy, and perhaps you’re currently experiencing anxiety, stress, and frustration. But in the long term you risk building a business—and perhaps a life—that doesn’t align with your values and goals. This is the greater concern in my view.

A little more than a decade ago I found my own life dreadfully misaligned. I was in my thirties and working an unfulfilling job as a telemarketer for a fly-by-night operation. I was also in debt up to my earlobes, overweight, and addicted to a host of unhealthy behaviors. This was not what I had wanted. Somehow, unintentionally, I had veered way off course.

I realized I had to focus on my life if I wanted to improve it. Here are some steps I took to do that. I hope they help you focus on your business.

First, listen.

Whether you call it the Muse, God, intuition, or unconscious reasoning, everybody has an inner voice. The trick is to listen.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” said Martin Luther King Jr. We often reference this quote with regard to dialogue and social change, but it pertains just as well to those inner bouts with our better selves: “I don’t have time.” “That will never work.” “People will think I’m a fool.” “It’ll be too hard.” “I’ll get to it later.” How often do we silence our own ideas that matter?

I urge you to pay close attention to those ideas that have potential to change or shape your business. Sometimes these will occur as surges of inspiration, but far more often they will occur as quiet and subtle inclinations. They will be important but not urgent, nothing will require you to act on them, and they can easily be dismissed. Which is why you need to take the next step.

Change things up.

Since you’re a business owner I’ll assume you already use calendars, email, and other tools for capturing and conveying ideas, to-dos, and more. And yet it sounds like your deeper priorities are getting backburnered.

Shortly after I began rebuilding my life, I started carrying a pocket notebook and pencil to record ideas, reflections, lists and so on. I found that notes in a smartphone or laptop got lost in the din of distraction. At first I carried the notebook in my back pocket, but it would sometimes slip out so I started wearing shirts with front pockets. I ultimately changed my wardrobe. Today I never wear a shirt that doesn’t have a front pocket, and I always have my notebook and pen. And because this little booklet hangs over my heart it’s hard to ignore. It’s where I spend a few minutes when I open my eyes in the morning, before I close them at night, and moments in between.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to dress like I do. But you should assess your means of capturing ideas. If you aren’t noting your ideas and revisiting them regularly—at least weekly—your tools aren’t working. Try others. Get rid of distractors. Rearrange your office, apps, or wardrobe if necessary. In the words of David Allen, “Function often follows form. Give yourself a context for capturing thoughts, and thoughts will occur that you don’t yet know you have.”

Say yes.

You must act on new ideas—at least some of them—if you’re to change course or get different results.

When I began listening years ago, I had the idea to go to college and study philosophy. I also thought I would become a writer. For a middle-aged dropout with a young family to support, these ideas seemed harebrained. Indeed, many told me they were. I acted anyway, first by noting the ideas, then by reflecting on them, then by moving forward.

When you review and reflect on your ideas, you will receive more ideas. The wheels begin to turn. These tertiary ideas are your next actions. Say yes to these. Schedule them, prioritize them, tackle them first thing in the morning. For me, “get a philosophy degree” turned into “register as a student” and “apply for a grant.” “Become a writer” turned into “set up a blog and publish a post.”

When you say yes to your ideas, you affirm the values from which they stem, and it’s in acting that you can truly confirm whether your ideas have merit.

Say no.

To say yes to your values and goals, to new ideas and new possibilities, you’ll have to say no to other expectations and requests, even other values. Which means saying no to people you care about. This can be hard to do, and I’m afraid there’s no way around it. And though I’ve listed this tip last, perhaps it’s where you’ll start.

How? One trick is to remind yourself that every no is a yes. No to that meeting can mean yes to talking with that new vendor or reading that business strategy book. This has also been described as JOMO—the joy of missing out. Instead of operating from FOMO—fear of missing out—embrace the joy of turning down that opportunity or request and preserving your time and attention for greater priorities.

You can also practice through visualization. Imagine what your life or business will look like if you say no to those activities you question, or yes to those that inspire you. Playing things out in your head can prepare you to act accordingly.

Our own Justin Hale has shared several tips for renegotiating commitments or declining requests in a way that preserves relationships and forward momentum.

Years ago I said no to a range of people and activities. Did doing so disrupt things? Yes. Were some people confused or upset, even angry at first? Yes. Did my material and financial circumstances temporarily change? Yes. And today virtually every aspect of my life is better.

What I’ve outlined here is essentially a twofold strategy: (1) get clear on what you want to do or what you believe you ought to do, and (2) manage your day-to-day so you can do more of those things.

But this is not an exact science, and outcomes will not be immediate. We don’t always know what we want in life, and, even when we do, moving forward can feel like driving blindfolded. Sometimes you will have good reasons to act, other times you must leap with faith. Sometimes we can predict results, but mostly we give it our best and hope for the best. Outcomes aren’t in our power; effort and attention are.

Did I write the next great philosophical novel or literary profile? Nope. But I’m still giving my best.

I hope these thoughts help you give yours.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Getting Things Done

6 thoughts on “Some Field Notes on Working (and Living) Purposefully”

  1. Justin

    Great article! thanks Ryan

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thank you, Justin. I’ve learned a lot from you.

  2. William Techau

    Nearly every workday, I drive to a local supermarket, buy a salad and an apple, and then sit in my car out in the store’s parking lot to eat my little meal. Usually I read a book or listen to an audio book. Today I am adding a pocket-sized notebook to my short shopping list. Please keep your fingers crossed that it will make a difference. I need things to change. Thank you for writing this piece.

  3. Hanne Wulp

    Yes! One of my clients wrote down after our conversation together:
    “What do I want?”
    “What do I not want?”
    I think that’s the basis from where we can all start making big changes, and/or little tweaks.

  4. Some Field Notes on Working (and Living) Purposefully
  5. Gina

    A no is reframed as a yes, I love it! Great article.

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