Align Your Actions to How the World Works…

….and the world will do the work for you!

Question! What is that one tiny but major, basic but elusive secret to being a happy, successful, level-headed professional and human being?

Answer: According to research and this article by Farnam Street, it’s by working with keeping the basic principles of how the world functions in mind, and aligning one’s actions in that direction. Now that might sound confusing, generic and somewhat vague. Let us delve deeper into this.

Universal Principles:

 We will start by taking a very general example. We have all heard truisms like ‘health is wealth’ since ages. We know being healthy is a basic step to living a good life- everything else comes secondary. We know that without good health, we can’t enjoy the fruits of our labour. And yet, if we were to be honest with ourselves, how many times do we neglect our health in the day-to-day life? We forgo little chances of leading a healthy life. We scroll endlessly on our phones late into the night, or decide to keep the homecooked lunch on the side and opt for that vadapav.

Or consider waiting. Investments, be it financial or personal, take time to show results. We must wait a bit. We know this. But do we have the patience or willingness to wait?

Or how kindness leads to kindness, and fire leads to more fire.

Do you find yourself thinking of similar universal principles? Think principles around return of investments, savings, compounding, effort-reward, reciprocity of actions and so on.

Our peculiarity as human beings is that we tend to ignore these basic universal principles a lot of times. We know that we are ignoring, but we continue to ignore, and sometimes only follow them when we are forced to.

No one is an exception to these rules. Everyone needs to put in effort to live a healthy life. Everyone needs to wait for their investments to come to fruition. Everyone needs to put in effort to maintain and improve the status quo, whether we are talking about our professional or personal life. There are no exceptions to these universal principles of effort and returns.

Instead of aligning our actions to these universal principles, we tend to steer away from them, even when we know it’s not a good idea.

Where the Magic Lies:

The magic of universal principles and sticking to them is that once we start aligning our actions to them, the world will do the work for you.

All you need to do is align your actions to these universal principles. Nothing complicated. Whenever confusion arises, all we need to do is remind ourselves of these universal principles and align our actions to those, the rest would just be noise.

Nervous about an interview? Just think about the universal principle of effort and returns, and work on it accordingly. The rest will fall into place.

Confused how to approach a supposedly difficult client? Just think about the universal principle of reciprocity of behaviour, and approach them with a behaviour that you’d want them to reciprocate. The rest will figure itself out.

Wondering why a project seems stuck? Just think if you have waited long enough for the investment to show, and if you have waited long enough, think about the alignment that we talked about in our older article about working hard easily.  

One could also think about this in micro terms. Consider your office or field of work as a world. How does this world work? What are some ‘principles’ that seem to be embedded in its functioning? Find those out, and align your actions to those principles, and chances are, you will be pleasantly surprised by how perfectly and easily it all fits.

‘Alignment’ is the word to keep in mind. As we align our actions to how the world (and the multiple ‘worlds’ we inhabit) works, and stay true to ourselves, the world will do its magic for you.

Working Hard, Easily

We often associate working hard with slogging and trudging along. But working hard is often more about getting into an easy state of flow, a sign of being deeply engaged with our work.

Tired of trudging along and pushing forward?

Here’s a slightly different advice- stop and reevaluate, instead of pushing harder.

In this hustle culture, it is often a sign of grit and motivation to keep pushing when it gets harder. If you are a working professional, it is rarely that someone would tell you to stop and revaluate. Most of the motivational advice out there is to keep working harder. To try again and again and again until you succeed. To rise in one’s career, or to come up with a million-dollar idea, or to run a business or to be the star employee, the chief advice is to slog and work hard. Work harder. It’s always about being more disciplined. More focused. To push against all odds.

But is that always good advice? Does achieving something and working hard always mean we must feel like we are constantly swimming against the tide? Would it not be better if we could rather swim and flow amidst everything? Is there a different interpretation to ‘working hard’?

An insight by psychologist Julie Gurner is worth paying attention to. Speaking on a podcast for the online mindfulness and motivational page Farnam Street, she says: 

“I think we talk about discipline because it feels tough to do. We’re doing the hard thing. We’re slogging through. But when we are at our best, we’re not slogging through. Great people are obsessed and they’re not slogging through. They are driven. They are motivated. They are deeply, deeply engaged. … If it starts to feel like a slog and you’re pushing yourself every day—I mean, we all have periods of that—but [do it] too long and that really becomes laborious. To me, it’s often a flag that perhaps you shouldn’t be in that area at all.”

Haven’t we all, at some point, found ourselves working in a state of flow, working deeply, losing all track of time and finding a deep sense of accomplishment within ourselves?  Was that about ‘pushing’ harder? No, it was about flowing with our work. It was about being so engaged in what we were doing that we felt one with it. It was hard work that didn’t feel like ‘hard’ work.

Good, hard work should put us in a state of flow. It should engage us. After some slogging, after some pushing, if we still haven’t reached that state of flow, of the state of feeling engaged enough, perhaps it would be a better idea to reevaluate things instead of continuing to slog and push harder. Revaluate, so that we can find a way to flow.

Revaluating could involve changing our approach, or changing our thinking. It could also involve changing our objectives. It could also involve changing our path, in a minor or major way. The point is to aim for a state of flow, of deep engagement with what we are working towards, instead of feeling the slog.

Hello, Good Planner! Do you have time for Serendipity?

Planning is something we do all the time. Amidst the planning and keeping that control, some little space must be given to the power of serendipity.

We like to plan. We are told planning is a good thing, and we must keep making new plans and keep updating our old ones.

We plan a project, we plan a meeting, we plan a pitch, we plan future goals, we plan about how to reach our present goals and we plan our career. We plan a holiday, we plan our ‘me’ time. We do short-term planning, and we do long-term planning.

In all this planning, life happens to us. As the famous line by the famous John Lennon goes:

Life is what happens when you are making other plans…

Planning is good. It helps us remain secure and prepared. It’s a necessary activity which enables us to develop foresight and become good managers and leaders. It ensures a workable structure for the times when we might not know what to do, or when life throws its surprises at us. When we plan, we are being prepared for everything and anything.  

In all this pressure to plan and be prepared, we sometimes forget to keep a little breathing space. A little breathing space for serendipity.

What is serendipity?

Serendipity is when the unexpected works in just the right way. Some people call it a ‘happy coincidence’. Sometimes the events- unexpected ones -work out themselves without you having to do any planning.

Think of all those times when you gifted the exact thing the person needed without really knowing that the person indeed was looking for the very thing you gifted them.

The times when you were wondering how to contact a client and you received a connection invite from them instead.

The times when you may have chosen a different route for your commute and ended up having the client you were supposed to give a pitch to be your co-passenger. 

These are some very simple examples, but serendipity can work out in much more complex ways, and that is where the need to keep that space for it to act out comes in. Serendipity works when we keep that 1% space for the events to unfold themselves. We have to let the ideas unfold themselves. After a point, there’s a only so much planning one can do. The wisdom of sitting back and letting it unfold comes in handy.

Letting the Ideas Unfold on their Own:

A little insight from Paul Graham who wears multiple caps of an essayist, computer scientist, venture capitalist, investor and entrepreneur:

‘The best new ideas always have unanticipated benefits.’

In other words, after a point, we must let serendipity do its job.

Good planning is necessary. We should try our best to chart out a good plan with all the contingencies but once an optimum level of planning has been achieved, we should just let things unfold on their own. Overplanning is the enemy here: planning too much leaves no space for improvising, adapting and things to fall into place. It leaves no space to change tracks or put on the brakes. Overplanning can make ideas crash.

How to let serendipity do its job?

Plan but don’t over-plan: If you have ten steps charted out, but the eleventh step seems tricky, let it be, and let the ten steps do their work onto the eleventh step.

Be open to experiences: If a situation is not working the way you want it to work, and there’s nothing you can do about it, be open to the supposedly different situation that seems to be unfolding. Say for example, if your interview or the client meeting did not go according to the plan, be curious and see what could happen next, instead of trying fruitless damage control measures like frantic calling or emailing for a fixed result. The ‘alternate’ results might surprise you, pleasantly.

A job you thought you would hate but ended up genuinely enjoying? A situation you thought had failed but once you gave up control, solved itself? Yes, that is serendipity doing its work.

A Little Stress can make you More Productive

Most of the times we are told about stress and its downfalls. By now we know the kind of risks and diseases that a chronically stressed lifestyle can lead to, thanks to the tons of coverage about how stress is bad. But what if stress could be used in a good way? What if we told you that there’s a good kind of stress too. Read on.

Psychology calls it the ‘eustress’. Eustress is the kind of a positive stress one feels and something that can propel us to do a job well. How does the good kind of stress help us?

Gives the Push:

The good kind of stress can push us out of procrastination. Often, we do really good work around deadlines because the push of the stress makes us come up with really good workable ideas. We may wonder why we do our best work when there’s an outside pressure and the reason is that the outside pressure works as the ‘good stress’ that makes us get up and do the work needed. Say for example, a little nervousness, just a little, can lead to a good meeting as the nervousness will ensure we try our best, instead of taking it lightly and not giving our best. 

Being stress-free all the time can lead to stagnation:

While we are encouraged to live in a stress-free state and chronic stress should definitely be avoided, living on the other spectrum of absolutely no stress is not only unrealistic but also not very feasible. Some ‘tension’ is a good thing. Feeling a sense of lack, or feeling a sense that there is more to be achieved is a good thing. It ensures we don’t remain stagnant and continue to find ways to move forward. Or think of it this way: things that are just lying around, not looked after, not stressed after gather up dust. That little stress is needed to brush up the dust.

The little inkling of stress that we are not living up to certain expectations, whether our own or someone else’s ensures we assess our situation and options. If the little stress compels us to invest in a side business, or that little tension that we may fall behind lets us undertake upskilling tasks, then that little stress, the little tension is a good thing, isn’t it?

Being stressed means that we care:

And caring about something is a great quality to have. Again, only if we care about something, whether it is our finances, our career, our family or our personal growth, will we be stressed out about it, and we will take steps to make things better. Or else, it leads to, as we mentioned before, stagnation. The opposite of care is apathy, and apathy not only leads to insensitivity towards our fellow human beings but also a sense of pessimism. ‘Why bother about things, they have always been like this’ isn’t an attitude that can lead to progress, industriousness and the urge to make things better in our own way.

Being stressed is a sign that we care, and instead of running away from the stress, or sweeping it under the carpet all the time, it might lead to something good. Whether it’s a push to come up with great ideas, or the push to change one’s life for the better, one step at a time.

Sitting Still to Move Forward

A workplace often gives us an imagery of activity. Phones ringing, papers shuffling, a few voices here and there, everything and everyone contributing to an active atmosphere. Meetings happen every now and then, symbolising movement, progress, brainstorming, dynamism, innovation. The modern culture today values this movement and innovation. New ideas, new ideas, better ideas! And somewhere, the value of stillness and focus is forgotten.

For anything to move forward, for any idea to be implemented well, a moment of stillness and focus is needed. It is indeed paradoxical that this stillness is sometimes necessary to implement the idea and take it forward. Let us quickly delve into this!

Repetition-Perfection versus Innovation:

Stillness also means the need to sit with something, and looking at it from all the possible perspectives, and repeating that if needed.

There is a Taoist wisdom that goes along these lines. Sometimes, we become so occupied with creating and thinking about something new, we forget to look properly at what is in front of us. Think of it this way- is it better to read multiple books, one after the other, almost behaving like it’s a competition to see who reads the greatest number of books? Or is it better to read one book thoroughly, paying attention to the little details within it?

Is it better to read that book, as many times needed to get a complete understanding of it? Or is it better to skip from one book to another, without trying to understand it completely?

Sometimes, the situation demands that we pay attention to just one agenda so that it can be managed well. Sometimes the need is that we pay attention to preparing one decent pitch for that one investor, by studying their expectations, instead of trying to network relentlessly with everyone we meet. It is thus really important to understand the context and shift our focus accordingly. Correction- it is important that sometimes, the need is to not shift the focus.

Distractions + Innovation= Focus gone!

A recent survey of 1600 employees highlighted by the Harvard Business Review brought to attention that more than 60% of those employees admitted that they rarely are able to engage in deep focused work for even one or two hours without interruptions. There is always some distraction- whether it is emails, a meeting, a quick chat, and so on. The article goes on to give a scenario- an employee checks their long list of emails first thing in the morning. He responds to those emails one by one- most are small, manageable requests. Naturally, it would make him feel productive, as the inbox goes from unread to read emails.

But wait, there is this one big request that needs more time- it is a project proposal. He decides to work on the project proposal later during the day when he has more focus. Later, when he does sit down to work on it, a co-worker stops by to chat. And before we know it, it’s lunchtime. After lunch, there’s a meeting scheduled to brainstorm about the next project. Once the meeting is over, it’s almost the end of the day, and so on…

The scenario or similar ones may not be entirely unfamiliar to us. Distractions are there. And add to that, we are encouraged to constantly move from one task to another. Rarely, it is mentioned that one must sit and work on a task. Rarely, that stillness to be on a task is encouraged.

It is here that people in leadership positions can turn that around.

Carving out Time, to give Time:

It becomes imperative for leaders, managers and others in such positions to ensure that equal importance is given to ‘focused work time’ as well. As an article by Growth Partners Consulting mentions-it is not just meetings and such ‘dynamic’ tasks that should have a special place at work- the time to sit with it and to work on tasks should also be paid equal importance.

It sounds almost obvious, but when we think about, we can’t deny how much time is often gone in deciding the number of tasks to be done, and how little time to actually work on something remains. 

Simple measures like reducing the number of meetings, setting a time-limit on the duration of meetings, setting aside specific hours or days for focused work, encouraging and modelling that behaviour can go a long way.

The pandemic reminded us the power and importance of being here and now. In one of our earlier articles, we recognised the importance of some ‘slack time’. It is also about time we recognise the power and importance of sitting with the task. Slack time is when reinvention happens. And pausing everything else for a while to deeply work on a task is when the forward movement happens.