Thoughts on How to Create A Meaningful Life Through Meaningful Work

photo by Austin MacKay — Instagram @austin.mackay

photo by Austin MacKay — Instagram @austin.mackay

Do you want to know what a rare, and valuable skill is in our world?

Keep in mind that it is only going to grow and become more rare, and increasingly more valuable as time goes on.

Consistently carrying out deeply meaningful, passionate work, distraction free.

I’m not talking about vague skills such as communicationwork ethic, or mindset.

The specific target here is deep work.

Flow.

Deliberate practice.

Think about how many times you have your phone within arms reach? Or multiple web pages open while you try to email. Maybe you’re working on multiple projects at once. It’s possible you may be reading a book, and have the television on in the background. How about when you cook, where is your mind? When you listen to others, are your listening intently or awaiting your turn to speak?

Are you doing the thing — and only the thing — that it is you should be doing?

Can you create, without consuming?

Can you consume, without creating?

Why is this a problem? For starters, I think our society is becoming increasingly governed by social factors that otherwise would not be playing an influence into our life. The sheer volume of exposure to people, and events outside of our daily lives through social media has created great amounts of superficiality. In turn, this very surface level of perception has bled into our ability to look inward, to communicate rationally, to work diligently, and to make decisions from a skeptical, and reasonable headspace.

Let me make something clear: Social media has many benefits. It has allowed the rapid growth of ideas, industries, movements, and more. But this article is about something we are beginning to lose:

Our ability to work deliberately, and meaningfully, stemming from our deepest passions.

We might think that we are in control of every thought and action we have, but understand, we are not. We are pulled by so many forces outside of our conscious control, that what we ultimately decide to do is formed from the dark reserves of our subconscious mind.

However, this is not an article looking at the evolution, anatomy, and physiology of the human brain — although it is very enlightening and sheds a great amount of detail into why we behave the way we do.

Instead this is my experience, my perception of it, and how I can make whatever means I have work in my favour.

Living in a Distracted World, Filled With Shallow Behaviours

What do I consider a shallow behaviour? Doing something that is inherently easy, and isn’t in honour of your larger goals. Producing meaningful work takes deliberate awarenesseffort, and time. Anytime your phone buzzes, bings, or blips, while you are doing a deeply important task, your brain has become trained from the thousands of times you responded to that notification before.

We get a rush of dopamine.

We need to see the message now.

This, along with the thousands of other external stimuli we experience every day, fights for our attention. Every time we cave in to these pressures, we rewire our brain to seek these patterns of behaviour more. We become the busy beaver — someone who can always be witnessed as doing something, yet somehow managing to accomplish nothing.

Our attention spans shorten, and we begin to crave instant gratification. If we can’t get an answer right now, we panic. We are becoming more dependent on these external stimulants. However as this dependence increases, so does our level of anxiety and stress.

What happens once we begin to go deeper down this rabbit hole? We start to exercise only shallow behaviours. As I mentioned earlier, shallow behaviours are usually the trivialities and pleasures of life, or the pull of factors outside of your control. They usually don’t lead you to your dreams you have set out for yourself. Emails, phone calls, messages, social media. We let them control our fate, by incessantly trying to keep on top of them, rather than answering them when we are ready, willing, and able to complete them with our highest level of attention.

We find ourselves only doing the bare minimum, without evening realizing it. This is because our sense of time is completely distorted. Our version of reality comes from a day in age where we should be able to get what we want, right now.

And guess what? Shallow behaviours are abundant, and distractions are not going to go away. Do you want to produce work, and consume information, like most of the developed world does? Or would you rather set yourself apart?

It starts with an attitude adjustment. A shift in perspective.

Create a Flow Space for Your Deep Work. This Breeds Deep Meaning.

I’m not entirely sure where I came up with this number, but it’s in my head so I have now decided to just go with it. Noticeable progress has been made, there have been no downsides, and so I will continue to run with this.

Two hours.

Two hours, distraction free, focused purely on a task that will directly move you forward to your goal.

Deliberate practice, the kind of practice that builds champions and masters — requires your undivided attention. Hemingway said it rather succinctly*:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
— Ernest Hemingway

It’s all about having faith in time and respecting the process. It’s especially about having a mindset that understands that most things that come instantly or through half-assed work, does not really add value to us. Likewise, we ourselves fail to add true value to the world.

We have to enjoy whatever it is that we are doing wholeheartedly. We must be focused intently, and not to give into distractions that fight for our attention constantly.

I think of it has a very ‘punch in, punch out,’ type of model. Schedule your deep work time, be ruthless about adhering to it, and then most importantly — do the work. Then show up again tomorrow and repeat.

Some days it comes easier than others. On the days where you feel that you lack the focus, motivation, or creativity, do not cave into a distraction. Instead, lean into the discomfort. Remember, there is only discomfort because you have a goal — get work done — and your actions and thoughts aren’t leading to the desired outcome. This creates a perceived imbalance. Your brain now looks to its wired pattern of reward recognition and knows you can get a quick hit of “happiness,” by simply turning on your phone, answering an email really quick, adding another item onto your to-do list or possibly, crossing something quite small and trivial off your list.

The only way to lose yourself in your work, is to give yourself space to be compassionate towards yourself. You’ve decided to put your attention on a specific task for two hours. Well guess what? That’s work that most people won’t do.

This is what separates you.

This leads us to how we can set the stage for a day of high productivity.

Morning and Evening Rituals

Morning and evening rituals are simply moments that allow us to build compelling primacy and recency effects into our daily lives.

We start, and end the day strong.

By doing this, we set ourselves up with with a small win — completing our morning ritual — which gives us momentum throughout the day, and then we end on the evening ritual, giving us perspective on what we did well and what we might improve on in the future.

It’s this idea of constant self-examination blended with action, which can result in massively transformative change.

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Rituals allow us the time and space to create self-awareness. These are a few of the questions I try to ask myself every morning, and evening. It’s also a technique that I call Looking Back, Looking Ahead.

Morning Prospections

  • How am I feeling physically and mentally?

  • What is the most essential, and meaningful task that I want to get accomplished?

  • What obstacles might stand in my way? How will I overcome them?

  • What can I accept that I can’t change?

  • What small steps can I take to show that I am serious about loving myself?

Evening Reflections

  • What am I most grateful for?

  • What went well?

  • What didn’t go according to plan?

  • How might I overcome this obstacle next time it may present itself?

  • How did I help someone?

Every morning I wake up and have a big glass of water. I will make my bed, then proceed to meditate for 10 minutes. Right away, I move into my Morning Prospections. Following this, I will make a cup of coffee, and put on an audiobook. Sometime during the book, I try to eat something light, but it must be high in protein. Afterwards, I then enter a short phase of deep work for writing. Anywhere from 20-45 minutes. From all these small victories, I usually feel pretty energetic, so I will exercise for about 45–60 minutes.

Bonus points if I can get all of this done before the sun comes up.

Notice how these tasks aren’t remarkable in their singularity. The power lies within each task. There are no distractions. There is only pure intent and attention towards each and every action. By the time two hours is up, I have started my day pretty strong I’d say.

For the evening, I usually wind down by completing my Evening Prospections, meditating again, playing guitar, and doing something that will help promote a deep sleep. Anything relaxing that does not involve electronics is good in my books.

Your ritual may look different than mine. Just make sure you have one, and stick to it.

Now what are we supposed to in between these rituals?

Consciously, Meaningful Choices

Making a calculated action, which aligns directly with your goal — this is what a consciously, meaningful choice is. You’ve slowed down, took in your surroundings, looked within, planned ahead, and made a highly executive move based on all of this information.

By doing so on a consistent basis, you add meaning into your life. Meaning is not something you seek, rather it is something that you give. You’re perspective and behaviours are the proverbial paint brush on the canvas. After days, months, years, and a life, you have left your piece of art — your legacy — behind.

Reduce friction to desirable behaviours. Increase friction to undesirable behaviours.

I have recently begun to try a new a personal challenge. It started when my brother first showed me what a recent iPhone update allowed: Screen time tracking. I got a very humbling, but scary number showing up. My time spent on social media, entertainment, and reading & reference. These numbers did not look the way I thought they might. I use my phone a lot for practical, informative tasks. Audiobooks, reading articles, checking emails, messaging friends and clients. But wait, social media? There is no way I look at it that much. There couldn’t possibly be any way that I pick up my phone that many times in an hour.

These numbers helped me form a tangible, rational, and realistic view of how I was using my phone. No — how my phone was using me.

So, after this serious awakening of sorts, what did I decide to do?

I took stock of my daily behaviours, and then created a setting around each behaviour I either wanted to build on, or I wanted to cut off. It’s the same principle I use when I coach clients on eating and living a healthier life: Shape your environment. Make whatever is around you, work for you. Not against you. A quick example of this would be getting people to put their vegetables at eye level in the fridge — not in the bottom drawers, tucked away where nobody can see them.

I increased friction to my undesirable behaviours. Then I reduced fiction to my desirable ones.

  • Play more guitar was a simple one. Remove it from my bedroom, and put it in my living room where I can see it, and where I sit often.

  • Flossing more became much easier once I left the floss on the counter, or better yet, pre-pulled out a string of floss so it’s ready to grab next time.

  • Drinking water upon waking is a lot simpler when you have a bottle already filled from the night before, right on your night stand.

  • Cellphone use. Ah, yes. This one I thought would be hard, but in reality it was very easy. Step one: Move all social media icons into a separate folder, which you must swipe screens multiple times to get at. Step two: Go to settings, then notifications, and turn off all notifications to every social media outlet, email, and messages. Step three (which could just be step one): Just put the fucking phone down. Turn it off, and leave it outside of your room when a) you have deep work to do, and b) when you sleep.

  • Work while the world sleeps. I was reminded of this while watching a Casey Neistat vlog a few weeks ago. He said that he loves getting up at five in the morning to work, because he can focus on just his work without the family, any texts, emails, or other needless distractions, caused by guess who: people.

Where to Begin

Step One: Become hyper aware of your environment. Look around at who you spend your time with, your personal work space, and examine the thoughts you feed on a consistent basis. Be brutally honest and transparent in your self-reflection.

Step Two: Begin to cultivate a mindset for focusing on deep work, and living a meaningful life. Create morning and evening rituals to start and end your day strong. Then book time (whether it’s 20 minutes or two hours) to work on something you love, without any distractions. This setting should be clutter free, and minimal. It’s just you and the work.

Step Three: Stay consistent in your work time, and ethic, while remaining self-compassionate. Remember that what you wish to achieve takes the magical three ingredients of awarenesseffort, and time. Make giving into the temptations of shallow behaviours difficult, by increasing the friction to the unwanted behaviour. Continue to give your love and kindness to throughout the entirety of this process. Even on the so called “bad days.”

*I had this quote in mind, but couldn’t quite figure out how to write it. So I looked it up. Apparently this isn’t even the original quote, and there is an entire website dedicated to examining the origins of quotes which you can read here. The quote works however, and I will keep it. To hell with you if you don’t like it.

Thank you for reading my article. I hope you found it helpful or at least thought-provoking. If this post did help you, consider sharing it with someone you think it would help too.