Focus on Creation vs. Consumption to Crack the Code on Your Day’s Challenges

Yesterday was one of those days – busy but not particularly productive. That kind of day eats away at me, and they happen more often than I’d like to admit.

As I’ve mentioned before, Heather and I work together from home. Working from home has many benefits, but also drawbacks. We have flexibility, there’s no commute, and it helps keep business costs down.

But there are costs, just not financial ones. And, ironically, the flexibility that comes with working from home is one of the main culprits of the costs we bear. The biggest challenge we face is focusing too much on work which leads to focusing too little on our personal lives. That challenge is multiplied by working together. It’s easy to be physically present, but not mentally so, when your office is your home.

It’s also easy to get distracted. It’s nice to be able to throw in a load of laundry or get dinner started when you’re at home all day, but if you’re not careful you can get consumed by household activities and neglect work. Bouncing back and forth between work and personal responsibilities means that neither get the attention they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working from home and don’t think I’ll ever go back to working at an off-site physical location. And I’m not alone. A recent survey by MoneyTips found that 86 percent of Americans who work from home love or like their set-up, and 67 percent report that they are more productive working from home than they are in an office.

Like most things in life, it’s all about striking the right balance. {tweet that} While working from home enables the type of life I want to live, at times it can lead to the exact opposite. I like to think that I lead a productive and purposeful life, but my vision of myself and my actual self are often wildly divergent – just ask Heather. Days like yesterday remind me how easy it is to get off-track.

As Annie Dillard, author of The Writing Life, said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge of maintaining daily focus on what’s important, but – despite the occasional setback – I’ve found something that seems to work for me…and maybe it will work for you, too. If I focus intently on output over input, then good things tend to happen.

Create More than You Consume

How do you start your day? In my experience the early morning hours set the tone for the entire day. As a parent of three young kids, in order for my morning to start off on the right track I need to get up early. Once the kids are up all bets are off. I’m not overly ambitious about my morning routine, however. I focus on accomplishing one thing, and if I can do that, then the rest of the day seems to fall in place.

One of the most popular “life hack” topics that you’ll find discussed in various quarters of the internet is how to establish a successful morning routine. I chuckle when I read many of these articles because they typically suggest a combination of some or all of the following activities that are supposed to be completed before 8 a.m.: meditation, exercise, reading, creating a to-do-list, and eating a healthy breakfast.

Ha! Clearly none of these people have kids. I’m lucky to take a shower on most days, and I spend more time trying to brush syrup out of my daughters’ hair than I do even contemplating meditation. That’s why I try to focus on accomplishing just one thing in the morning – typically a workout or some writing – rather than trying to do too much. It’s the Navy Seal approach to the morning.

In a commencement speech at the University of Texas, Naval Adm. William McRaven explained why it’s important to accomplish something – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – when you start your day:

“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”

The point is to start the day with some form of output, some accomplishment. Doing begets doing.

What not to do? Start the day with input, or consumption.

It’s easy to wake up and immediately grab your smartphone and start checking email and social media. It’s always enticing to check out what other people are doing in order to distract from the craziness of what faces you in your own day.

That’s not to say that consumption is, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed, not all consumption is created equal. Thoughtful consumption – reading great books, watching great movies – fuels creative output. But too much consumption, or consumption of the wrong things, can leave you feeling stressed, adrift and discouraged throughout the day.

When we have big things that we’re trying to achieve, it’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, obsess over the outcome and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s the reason that I find myself consuming – be it scrolling through Facebook or running to the refrigerator for a snack – instead of doing what I should be doing: Creating. By prioritizing output over input, I almost always have a productive, fulfilling day.

Keep it in Perspective and Seek Balance

Just as too much input is counterproductive, too much output is too. It’s easy to get caught up in the chase. As I alluded to above, because I work from home, I often work too much from home. Because I can, I do, and then I’m not present – mentally and emotionally – for those around me. It’s something I’m working on, and it helps to keep in mind this insight from Maria Popova:

“Though some have argued that today’s age is one where ‘the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,’ there’s an unshakeable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.”

Professional success and personal satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. Money and meaning are both attainable. It just takes mindfulness and discipline. Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific and accomplished people in history. He began each day by asking himself a simple question, “What good shall I do this day?” and ended it by reflecting upon “What good have I done today?”. That’s a pretty good way to bookend your day.

Input vs. Output. Output vs. Being Present. It’s a tricky balancing act. But if you can walk the tightrope you can look back on your day’s journey and be content.