(This article by Peter Bregman was originally published in the Harvard Business Review).
I was coaching Sanjay,* a leader in a technology firm who felt stuck and frustrated. He wasn’t where he wanted to be at this point in his career.
He had come to our coaching session, as usual, prepared to discuss the challenges he was currently facing. This time, it was his plan for conducting compensation conversations with each of his employees. After a few minutes of listening to him talk through his plans, I interrupted him.
“Sanjay, you’ve had these kinds of conversations before, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And, for the most part, you know how to do them, right?”
“Yes,” he said again.
“Great. Let’s talk about something else.”
“But this is what’s on my mind right now,” he protested. “It’s helpful to think it through with you.”
“I’m glad it’s helpful, Sanjay,” I said. “But you don’t want me to be merely helpful. You want me to be transformational. And focusing on what’s top of mind for you right now is not going to get us there.”
You see, the reason Sanjay is stuck — and the reason many of us feel that way — is that we focus on what’s present for us at any particular moment.
On the other hand, what most of us want most is to move forward. And, by definition, paying attention to the present keeps us where we are. So, sure, I can help Sanjay be a better “present” Sanjay. But I will have a much greater impact if I help him become a successful “future” Sanjay.
It’s a familiar story: You’re busy all day, working non-stop, multitasking in a misguided attempt to knock a few extra things off your to-do list, and as the day comes to a close, you still haven’t gotten your most important work done.
If you want to be productive, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be? Another question is: Where do I want to go? Chances are that the answers to these questions represent growth in some direction. And while you can’t spend all your time pursuing those objectives, you definitely won’t get there if you don’t spend any of your time pursuing them.
If you want to be a writer, you have to spend time writing. If you want to be a sales manager, you can’t just sell — you have to develop your management skill. If you want to start a new company, or launch a new product, or lead a new group, you have to spend time planning and building your skills and experience.
Here’s the key: You need to spend time on the future even when there are more important things to do in the present and even when there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words — and this is the hard part — if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.
I want to expand my writing abilities, so I have started waking up at 5:30 in the morning to write fiction. Unfortunately — and I am not being humble here — I am a terrible fiction writer. So my writing time feels painfully unproductive. I can’t sell it. I can’t use it. I can’t share it. Honestly, I can hardly bear to read it out loud. I have such a long list of things that actually need to get done, it is almost impossible to justify losing sleep in order to do something so unrelated to my present challenges. I know this is how my clients feel when I ask them to put aside their immediate concerns and focus on more distant challenges.
A question I hear a lot is: What about all the things I actually need to get done?
Don’t I need to get through my cluttered email box, my pressing conversations, my project plans in order to create space to focus on my future self?
That’s a trick your busy self plays on you to keep you away from the scary stuff you’re not yet good at and that isn’t yet productive. Sometimes you need to be irresponsible with your current challenges in order to make real progress on your future self. You have to let the present just sit there, untended. It’s not going away and will never end. That’s the nature of the present.
You may not end up with an empty email inbox. You may not have the perfect compensation conversations. You may not please everyone. But, as your coach, I’m willing to bet that you will do those things well enough.
It’s the other stuff I worry about. The wildly important stuff that never gets done because there’s not time or it’s not urgent or it’s too hard or risky or terrifying. That’s the stuff I want to help you work on.
Even though Sanjay is delighted at the idea of focusing on his future self, he resists it because it doesn’t feel as good as solving his current challenges. He isn’t as skilled at it yet. That’s why it’s his future.
And that is exactly why he needs to focus on it.