Living Intentionally


14 min read

A couple of weeks ago, I was thrown yet another curve-ball in a life that has seen quite a few changes lately. I've spent the last four years wearing the hats of senior developer, technical manager, process-coach, and mentor at LivingSocial. It was exactly the right place for me to be during a time when the rest of my life was in upheaval due to a divorce, a (re)discovery of my passion for racing bicycles, a new marriage, and the many ups and downs of trying to facilitate the bonding of a large, blended family. In many ways, the last four years have been a second adolescence for me; I've had the chance to try out some new things―both professionally and in my personal life―and become reacquainted with the idea of what makes me tick. My position at LivingSocial offered a lot of flexibility both in terms of schedule and the ability to do valuable work that fit well with the level of emotional effort I was capable of at any given time. I am grateful to have worked with an engineering organization led by people who cared enough about me as an individual to stand by me through some fairly tough times.

Inevitably, all things do come to an end, and I, along with many other very talented coworkers, was laid off a couple of weeks ago as my (now former) employer struggles to build enough runway to make a pivot into a new area of business. I have no complaints about the action: it was a clearly necessary move, and LivingSocial was very generous with a severance package for everyone affected. In fact, for the first time in my adult life, I have the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time examining my life and making a considered decision about my next steps without needing to simultaneously worry about earning today's paycheck.

Because I needed to return to LivingSocial the company-provided laptop that I've been using for both work and personal computing for the last several years, one of the first things I did after finding out about the lay-off was to purchase a new laptop. I've been growing more-and-more frustrated with Apple's "walled-garden" approach to OS X lately, so I decided I'd revisit an old love, and ordered a laptop from System76, an Oryx Pro running Linux. For most things, I find the modern Linux desktop perfectly adequate, but there are two pieces of software that I rely upon heavily and have not yet found a suitable replacement: Quicken for personal finance management, and OmniFocus for managing my (rather expansive) to-do list.

It is while searching for a replacement for OmniFocus that I was turned on to the process that I'm going to share with you for figuring out what truly matters in your life and ensuring that you align the way you spend your time with the person whom you really want to be. I can't claim to have invented this method, but hopefully an example of how I've been applying it recently will inspire you to do the same and take charge of your life in a way that brings true clarity to everything you will do from here on out. If you live every moment intentionally, you can transform from a state of constant background-worries about whether you are missing something important into a state of relaxed-action where you can be confident that you are putting your energy into the right work while also remaining flexible enough to change direction as new events transpire.

A System for Intentional Living

In my search for a new task-management system that would work outside of Apple's walled-garden of OS X and iOS, one of the products I evaluated is a web application called FacileThings. This application provides an extremely railroaded implementation of the popular Getting Things Done methodology, which can be nice when you are a person (like me) who would otherwise be inclined to spend nearly as much time fiddling with the configuration of a task-management system as you would...well...actually getting things done. Ultimately, I decided not to use FacileThings, but only because I did not feel like it presented the tasks in a way that really helped me narrow my view down to "exactly what should I be working on right now?" (This is an area where the implementation of Perspectives in OmniFocus has really spoiled me, and I can't find any other system that does this well.)

The one feature in FacileThings that I found extremely useful, however, is the "Perspective" section (not the same use of the word as in OmniFocus). This section is what turned me on to the method I'm describing here via it's guided approach to walking the user through three fairly basic―but extremely effective―steps to help align your effort with the things that matter most to you:

  1. Define your purpose
  2. Describe your vision
  3. Set your goals

Step 1: Define Your Purpose

The first question is, what is your purpose? In other words: why do you exist; what is your unique contribution to this world?

I've often thought about what it is I want to do with my career (I really enjoy the work of building and coaching high-functioning software development teams). I've certainly put thought into what is important to me in raising my children (I want them to be kind, independent adults who are ultimately content with their lives). I've thought about what I want to do with my personal time (I like to race bicycles, go backpacking, and travel). But this, honestly, is the first time I've been asked the question, "what is your purpose," in a way that caused me to step back and examine that question not in terms of how it applies to any one aspect of my life, but instead to find the true, underlying "thing" about which I am passionate across all areas of my life.

After some reflection, this is what I came up with for myself:

My passion is leading groups of people in collaborative efforts to improve the world around us—for ourselves, for future generations, and for other species—and to help develop other leaders who can effectively do the same.

The fundamentally important part of this "Purpose" is that it is immediately applicable to every single action that I might take. I want everything into which I put my effort to result in a tangible improvement to the world. Now, that doesn't mean I am constantly working on, say, "world peace" or "stop the polar ice caps from melting"; even actions as simple as "clean the kitchen", "pick up that piece of trash that someone left laying about", or "smile at the person whose path you cross on the sidewalk" meet this litmus test. The way it is stated, I've even allowed for actions that simply improve the world around me for me (because it's important to take care of yourself, too!)

"Leading," of course, means "doing" in a way that encourages and empowers others to do the same. In this sense, my purpose applies well to both my career and my family-life. As an individual-contributor to software projects, I want the work I do to exemplify software-craftsmanship. As an agile coach or team manager, I want to show people how an environment of respect and consensus can improve the quality of our product as well as our lives. As a parent, I want to demonstrate the kindness and stewardship of our world that I hope my children will exhibit as adults.

Furthermore, I want to help create more leaders who will also do these things. As a consultant or team-manager, it is not enough for me to engage with a team and lead them in my way of thinking without also developing the team's ability to continue and evolve after I am no longer involved. As a parent, I want my children to pass these ideas on to their children and their peers, so that society can benefit at a scale that I could never reach on my own.

So, what is your purpose? Take some time to reflect on it. Write it down somewhere! See if you can summarize it in just one or two sentences that you can apply as a test whenever you are unsure what direction to take with decisions big or small.

Importantly, while your purpose should be broad enough to cover all aspects of your life and so fundamental that it is unlikely to change, don't be afraid to change it! If, in a month, a year, or a decade you feel like your purpose statement no longer fits you, spend the time to reflect and write a new one that does. Nothing in this world will guarantee failure so much as forcing oneself to work against one's true purpose.

Step 2: Describe Your Vision

If you can visualize the whole of spring and see Paradise with the eye of belief, you may understand the utter majesty of everlasting Beauty. If you respond to that Beauty with the beauty of belief and worship, you will be a most beautiful creature. ―Said Nursi

Now that you understand your purpose, how does it shape the person that you will be in five to ten years? Take a moment, close your eyes, and visualize your life in the future. What do you see? What are you doing for a living? What kind of lifestyle do you lead? What is your family like?

When I think about what my life will look like five to ten years from now, here's what I see (more-or-less in order of importance to me):

  • I am a parent of successful children. Our children are either currently or well on their way to becoming independent, young adults who are empowered to find their own successes and be content with their lives.

  • I am prepared for the future. We are prepared for the future with a financial plan that puts us on the path to a long and enjoyable retirement and have ensured that there will not be disastrous financial or legal issues in the event of Amber's or my unexpected death or inability to work or live independently.

  • I have a beautiful, well-maintained home. Our home is well-maintained, has enough space for everyone in the family, is nicely landscaped, and well-decorated. It is a place where we are comfortable living and where we are proud to entertain guests.

  • I am a competitive masters cyclist. I am competitive within my age group and category as a racing cyclist and am on track to remain competitive until well-into my old age.

  • I am a successful entrepreneur. I have built a successful consulting business with a solid base of customers and referral business that provides lasting financial security for my family and allows me to partially fulfill my purpose via my career.

  • I am socially/politically involved. I actively take part in social, civic, and political activities that have a positive impact on the world around me.

There is no "correct" number of vision statements to have. Just try to describe what your life looks like to you. Check that each vision is in line with your purpose; if it doesn't directly contribute to your purpose, it must at least not be in conflict with your purpose. If it is in conflict, check that this is really your vision for your life and not someone else's vision for your life! You only get one shot at this life; be your own person.

Step 3: Set Your Goals

It's OK to have a plan, to invest in your future―for your financial security, your love life, your personal fulfillment, and even your happiness. To have personal happiness as a stated goal doesn't detract from it if you get there. ―Karen Finerman

It's no good seeing where you want to be without a plan to get there. Now that you've visualized the life you want to be living ten years from now, what concrete achievements can help get you there? By setting SMART goals to help realize your vision, you will have a tool to measure your progress towards it. While vision statements reflect the long term outcomes of your life, your goals should generally be things that are achievable within the next few years; they won't necessarily get you all the way to your vision, but they materially move you closer to it. Your goals should be even less set in stone than your vision. As you achieve some goals, and as other life-events occur, you will discover that your goals need to change as well. Never be afraid to change you plan as you get more information.

Important to the "R" (relevant) part of a SMART goal: make sure your goals are related to one (or more) of your vision statements. If you can't find a way to relate a stated goal to a vision, check whether you have a vision that you haven't made explicit and get it written down. If the goal really doesn't apply to your vision of your life, drop it now. This is where being explicit about your purpose and vision really pays off: living your life intentionally means not spending your limited time on things that are not important to you.

As of right now, here are my goals as they relate to each of my vision statements:

  • I am a parent of successful children.

    • Children all have defined Purpose, Vision, Goals Just like me, each of our children will establish a habit of defining and reviewing their Purpose, Vision, and Goals, so that I can better help them. Timeframe: end of 2016

    • Children are Financially Responsible Each of our children will understand the basics of managing their finances, including using bank accounts, creating and following a budget, and earning money. Timeframe: end of 2018

    • Children have effective, well-established study/homework habits Children will have effective study and work habits that allow them to achieve their full potential in school. Timeframe: end of 2016/2017 school year

    • Take a family vacation each year While kids are still young, take the entire family on a week-long (or more) vacation each year to a different destination to expose them to different cultures and environments. Timeframe: by end of each year

  • I am prepared for the future.

    • Have Investments to Fund Retirement Set up and understand investment accounts to fund our retirement. Timeframe: end of 2017

    • Pay off all debt other than mortgage Timeframe: end of 2020

    • Set up Proper Legal Documentation Ensure that appropriate legal documentation is in place in the event that Amber or I die. Timeframe: end of 2016

  • I have a beautiful, well-maintained home.

    • Complete Home Remodel Have extensive remodeling work done on our home to provide enough bedrooms for everyone, update the kitchen, add a home-office and home-gym, and add a MiL suite/appartment. Timeframe: end of 2017

    • House is in a good state of repair The backlog of items needing repair (major and minor) has been cleared out, so that we can focus our attention on new issues as the arise. Timeframe: June 2017

  • I am a competitive masters cyclist.

    • Upgrade to a Category 3 Road Racer Timeframe: end of 2018
  • I am a successful entrepreneur.

    • Build a stable consulting business Create a business that will provide for our financial needs in the near term. Timeframe: end of 2016
  • I am socially/politically involved.

    • Develop and Run Programming Course at FGCS Build on the work already done by Markus Roberts to develop and successfully run a full-year, introductory computer programming course for the students at FGCS. Timeframe: end of 2016/2017 school year

    • Hold a local public office Serve my community by being elected or appointed to and effectively running a local public office. Timeframe: end of 2020.

Living Each Moment with Intent

Now that you understand your purpose, have visualized your future, and have planned some concrete goals to help get you there, you have the tools you need to live intentionally. The next time you have a task on your plate, and you have that nagging feeling that you don't want to do it, think about how it relates to this hierarchy of goals, vision, and purpose. If it works against your purpose, drop it like a hot brick. Don't waste a moment of your precious time doing something that isn't you. Why would you put effort into making it harder to achieve your purpose in life?

If the task simply doesn't help you meet one of your established goals, consider if it is telling you there is another goal? To which of your visions does it relate? If there is another goal, write it down as such, but consider whether it's something that you should act on right now, or if this is something you should set aside for the future, once more immediate goals have been achieved. Maybe that nagging feeling is just telling you this isn't the right time.

If, after considering your purpose and your goals, the task at hand still doesn't relate to something you are trying to achieve, don't do it! If someone else is asking you to do it, explain to them why it isn't something you are going to spend time on. Perhaps they'll offer some additional perspective to show you how it fits with your goals, or perhaps you will simply have to insist they find someone else to take care of it. Remembering to say "no" to the activities that don't support your goals is the most powerful tool at your disposal to ensure you have the time and energy for the things that really matter to you.

This system has already provided me with a great deal of clarity in my day-to-day planning. Yes, there is still more I'd like to do than what I have time for in any given day, but by being able to quickly evaluate which of my goals any given task supports, I find that I am much better able to focus my attention on the task at hand, safe in the knowledge that it is the right thing on which for me to work at that moment.