We Live In A Noisy World
Our lives are full of interruptions, distractions, noise, and competing priorities. All of these inputs can set us in a sensory overload state, and we can feel frazzled and paralyzed. Your to-do lists can pile up, and it can feel like you’re in a losing battle. Before you’ve checked an item off, five more have crept onto your list. Each day carries numerous demands of you, leaving you feeling frustrated and even a bit lost. You feel more like a short-circuiting robot trying to check arbitrary items off lists rather than someone focused and making real progress on your goals, the most important things in your life. With all of the distractions and demands, how do you stay sane and focused on what really matters? How can you rest your head at night knowing you’ve made meaningful progress?
A Bit of My Burnout Story
Before I share a tool for focus and progress, first let me tell you a bit about my story of hitting burnout and my path to recovery. About three years ago, I hit a wall with stress and anxiety levels. I’d recently returned to my consulting job from maternity leave (and had a 3-year-old) and jumped right back into travel and a heavy workload. On a particular trip, I was heading to Newark, New Jersey from Raleigh, North Carolina. It was summer-time and the afternoon thunderstorms were wreaking havoc on flight schedules. I’ll spare you the details of the physical discomfort as a nursing mom without a place to pump and a departure time growing later and later. When I finally arrived in my New Jersey hotel room, this mama was burnt out and in desperate need of some self-care, or at least an electric outlet in a private location, oh, and some sleep.
Discovery of a Tool
After ordering late-night room service, I wanted to decompress a bit. I’d brought along a book that summarized how my life felt at the time, Jennifer Louden’s Comfort Secrets for Busy Women: Finding Your Way When Your Life Is Overflowing. What I found in reading this book, was the remarkable power of asking and answering key questions to get to the heart of the matter. These questions brought me closer to my center, in terms of my desires, what mattered to me, and my spiritual and physical needs. Starting the night in the hotel, I began asking myself questions each day, to keep me focused and grounded and embarked on a path to recovery.
Upon returning from my work trip, I actually created a “Quiet Jar” with the questions. I used questions from the book as inspiration, then shaped my own questions, into what I call Core Questions. My Quiet Jar included strips of paper with the questions placed in a container on my work desk. Those questions made a tremendous impact on calming the chatter around and within me, and on keeping me focused on what mattered most and letting go of the rest. The Core Questions became a tool for reducing stress and overwhelm, for helping me stay centered and grounded.
The Three Core Questions
So what are these Core Questions, you ask? These are questions that take you out of the crazy zone and help you zoom in on what’s truly important. While my list of questions in the Quiet Jar included 30 questions, I wanted to share with you the three questions that have been most helpful in keeping perspective and focus, particularly as it applies to making progress on important goals. Without further ado, here are my favorite Core Questions to support your focus and progress:
What Are My Top Three For Today?
What Is My Best Next Step?
What Can I Let Go Of Today?
Let’s dig into each one of these Core Questions so you can see the purpose and power behind them.
Core Question 1: What Are My Top Three For Today?
This is an absolute essential question to ask yourself at the beginning of each day. I’m a huge believer in using a method of grouping into three when it comes to setting goals and taking action. My approach is to set three goals or projects for three-month increments, then identify three weekly goals and focus areas, then set my top three each day. The key is alignment across these three levels. It is easier to think about what the top three most important things are for the day if you’ve got focal points for the week and quarter as well. You can then think about meaningful actions that are going to move your key projects or goals forward.
You may have heard the analogy of the rocks, pebbles, and sand to illustrate the importance of starting with the top three. With this analogy, you see that by putting the big rocks in the jar first, then pebbles, then sand, you can fill the jar. The picture of the rocks, pebbles, and sand is intended to illustrate parts of your own life and ensuring you prioritize what’s most important first. Hence the question of asking, “What Are My Top Three for Today?”
Ask this question every single day and identify your top three. Make sure you’re being ultra-selective when you put something on that top three list. Sure, you can have other to-do’s but these come AFTER your top three. This question keeps you feeling like you have to do EVERYTHING today. And there will still be days when you don’t complete your top three, which is okay. Let that help you to refine how you identify and set your top three.
It’s an evolving process, this experience of setting priorities and accomplishing goals. You’re practicing here so expect it to be a little messy. In fact, full disclosure: two days ago from my current time of writing, I didn’t set my top three for the day. I felt aimless and lost, and at the end of the day, I didn’t have a feeling of productivity and accomplishment. But today, I am back on track and have my top three is keeping me focused, and I feel much more fulfilled.
Core Question 2: What Is My Best Next Step?
This question empowers you to decide what next action to take. It pulls you out of the mayhem and reminds yourself of the power of small, intentional action. Break down the big project into one small step that will help you make incremental progress. We live in a culture that undervalues small but instead esteems big and loud — and instant gratification. But that isn’t how great things are accomplished, is it?
I’ve noticed lately that shows my daughters watchpoint out the value of small steps, which encourages me, as it seems we grown-ups have forgotten about the power of small steps. So this question emphasizes the power of small intentional steps.
If you feel stuck, use this question to push forward. Sometimes we are working toward a giant goal or are embarking on a major change. You don’t get to the other side of those big goals without some grunt work. Let’s use physical training as an example of this. I’m currently in the process of training for a half marathon. My last 3-mile run was 5 months ago, and that’s the starting point for the half marathon training plan, weekly 3 mile runs. The thought of running 13.1 miles in one shot seems impossible, and I’m certainly not physically ready for it on day 1 of my training. However, I’m following the play day by day, trusting in the process to prepare me for the race. I lace up my shoes and literally take the next step. Each of those steps, one after the other, leads me to complete one day of the training plan, getting me closer to the ultimate goal of finishing a half marathon. The same is true for you, as you discern your best next step on that big goal or project.
Recently I heard Michael Hyatt, a productivity expert and coach, say, that our big goals should be out of our comfort zone but our immediate next steps should be squarely in our comfort zone. I love that. It helps the impossible seem doable. So what big goals or dreams do you have? What feels scary or impossible? Then consider what can you do today, right where you are, with what you already have, to take one step forward.
Now, to the last Core Question.
Core Question 3: What Can I Let Go Of Today?
I suspect this one may be the most challenging for many of us. The first two questions were all about getting clear and focused on what actions you are taking. Now, this last question is all about what you AREN’T going to do.
Fundamentally, it’s about freeing up your time and energy to deliver on your top three and to take your best next steps (questions one and two). As time is finite, there’s really no way around NOT doing certain things if you want to accomplish what’s most important to you.
Letting go could take the form of delegating or eliminating or simplifying or pressing pause. Here are some common examples of letting go that I’ve experienced personally and have seen with others as well.
Relinquishing control and accepting help.
Saying no to good things in order to make space for great things.
Releasing the goal of perfection and embracing imperfection.
Doing less, but doing it better.
Pressing pause on a project to free up time and space for something else.
For example, is there a project at work that you are leading, where you actually need help? Is there someone who could provide support while growing and developing themselves at the same time? Delegation can be a beautiful tool, not just for the sake of “getting it done,” but also as a way to empower others to grow in new ways. As you consider what you can let go of, think about what opportunities it may open up for others. Letting go may be something small like delegating a task, or, it may be something larger for you — letting go of an endeavor that you’ve invested a lot of time, money, and resources into that simply don’t fit anymore.
Maximizing The Core Questions:
Alright, let’s do a quick review of the Core Questions then I’ll give some tips on how to get the most in using them. Here’s the flow of the Questions
What Are My Top Three For Today? —> What Is My Best Next Step? —> What Can I Let Go Of Today?
Now, I want to provide tips for getting the most benefit from the Core Questions:
- Keep the questions in view throughout the day. It’s too easy to get pulled back into the frantic pace of life and to lose focus. You’ll want to have visible reminders to bring your focus back. I created a simple wallpaper for my phone to keep the questions in sight.
- There is a logic to the order. Start with your top three then answer the second and third questions as interruptions and distractions arise or when you feel stuck and overwhelmed.
- Give yourself grace. You are likely a high-achieving slightly perfectionistic type so you want things to be just so. But kids get sick, urgent issues arise — so there will still be some days that you don’t accomplish your top three. We’re not aiming for 100% here but rather meaningful incremental progress.
Moving Forward and a Bonus:
As you can see, the Core Questions are about playing an active role in establishing your priorities and deciding how you’ll spend your time and energy. These core questions, when asked each day and throughout the day, will keep you on the path that’s the most meaningful and rewarding to you.
About the Author
Robin Kegerise is a Management Consultant and Encourager for Working Moms. She is passionate about helping moms “make it work” when it comes to having a fulfilling career and raising a flourishing family. She provides tips, tools, and resources for moms to achieve greater work-life integration.