Few things cause more anxiety than feeling like your life’s out of control. We’ve all been there—frustrated, wondering if our countless hours of busywork are actually leading anywhere. The feeling often arises when you realize that there are more things on your to-do list than you could ever accomplish in the time allotted. It gets worse when you recognize that, of the few things you are able to accomplish, none of it makes you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose. This blog is about how to fix that.
My apprenticeship in learning to live on purpose came from having two special mentors. One is Brendon Burchard, founder of High Performance Institute. The other is Angela Duckworth, renown UPenn scholar and CEO of Character Lab. They’ve never met, but I’m constantly struck by their similarity. One’s a highly successful entrepreneur who’s created a lab dedicated to understanding human excellence. The other’s a highly successful scientist who created a non-profit company dedicated to helping people apply the science of behavior change. The overriding similarity between them is a profound focus on their mission. Each knows exactly what they want from life, and they refuse to let distractions crowd out their dreams. I’m convinced that this habit is a primary driver of their success. In the following paragraphs, I hope to convince you that this habit can drive your success, too. I’ll do this by outlining three advantages that come from having clarity in your life’s purpose:
Advantage #1: People who have clarity about their life’s purpose don’t become fundamentally disorganized. When the busyness of life overwhelms us, it’s easy to feel disoriented. There are so many things to do that we don’t even know where to begin. The reason we feel out of control in these moments is because we don’t have an organized way of prioritizing what really matters.
High performers do things differently. They have clarity about what matters most to them. In fact, many of the most successful people in the world can say what they want to accomplish most in a single sentence. In Angela’s recent book Grit, she provides a few examples:
These short, clear statements give these people a way to organize their life. Because they know what they want, they’re able to make decisive choices about how they spend their time. Equally important, they’re able to say no to invitations that don’t align with their mission.
I remember the first time I heard Angela turn down a world-class researcher who asked her to collaborate on a project that didn’t align with her goals. “Sorry, I only work on things that help kids,” she said. Brendon’s the same way. I’ve witnessed numerous occasions when very famous people asked for his time and were turned down because he was focused on other projects. Of course, Brendon and Angela always decline with kindness. But they consistently say no to things that don’t align with their mission.
A strong sense of purpose is like having a compass for your life. It’s why people who have life clarity never become fundamentally disorganized. No matter how lost they feel, they can always re-orient by remembering their ultimate purpose. Next time you feel stressed about all the demands you’re trying to meet, ask yourself, “does this project fit into my primary vision for my life?” If not, you can turn it down without guilt knowing that life offers us more good opportunities than we can ever successfully pursue. It’s our job to limit our attention the ones that are best aligned with our mission.
Advantage #2: People who have clarity about their life’s purpose reach their goals faster. Brendon Burchard is the fastest rising star in personal development. No one’s built their social following and customer base quicker than he has. In many ways, he’s the envy of the industry. How has he done it? To answer, we have to go back to the moment that defined him.
At age 19, Brendon was depressed and suicidal following a break-up with his first love. Later that year, he took a summer job in the Dominican Republic to get away. While there, he got in an almost fatal car accident. As his car went off a cliff, three questions flashed through his mind:
Did I live? Did I love? Did I matter?
When the car finally came to a stop, he thanked God that he wasn’t dead. Then, he thought about those questions and realized he wasn’t proud of his answers. At that moment, Brendon made a decision to live the rest of his life so that he’d be proud of his answers when his time finally did come. Since that day, he’s made it a practice to ask, “Did I live?” “Did I Iove?” and “Did I matter?” before bed each night. Those three questions encapsulate his purpose. They are the measuring stick for his life.
Without knowing it, Brendon stumbled onto a central tenet in the science of high performance. Behavioral scientists have found that reflection and feedback are essential to improvement. Our brains can’t learn without feedback about success and failure. And we can’t have feedback without a clear goal. Brendon’s practice of reflecting on his three primary questions each day enables his brain to identify the behaviors that lead to success, and to turn those behaviors into habits.
The progress Brendon’s made in his life—both personally and professionally—has been extraordinary. In the last two decades, his message has touched hundreds of millions of people around the world. He’s been successful in almost every way imaginable: a wonderful marriage to his wife Denise, several companies that each make millions of dollars annually, beautiful relationships with his friends and family, a healthy lifestyle, and on and on. Brendon will tell you that the driving force behind all of this has been clarity of purpose and a habit checking in with himself each day to make sure that he’s making progress.
Advantage #3: People who have clarity about their life’s purpose achieve peak performance more often. In the 1970’s University of Chicago professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-Sent-Me-High) discovered a psychological state common to the world’s highest performers. The journey to discovery began as he studied the creative habits of local artists. Csikszentmihalyi was struck by the level of focus that they brought to their work. As they painted, they became so engaged in the task at hand that they completely lost track of everything around them. They hardly stopped to eat or go to the bathroom. The more he watched them, the more he realized they were tapping into something special. They were accessing their full creative potential.
Csikszentmihalyi went on to study different populations like musicians and athletes who accessed extremely high levels of focus during their activities. In his interviews with them, he was struck by the similarity in how they described their experiences. Regardless of the field, they described peak moments of full engagement where they lost track of time. Their concentration on the task was so complete that they lost any feeling of self-consciousness. They felt totally in control and fully present. Work became effortless. Many described feeling like they were “carried on by the flow.” From those interviews, Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow,” which is now widely regarded as the optimal psychological state for creativity, productivity, and enjoyment. If you’ve ever felt like you were “in the zone,” you probably know what this state feels like.
The question Csikszentmihalyi began to ask is, “how can people have optimal experience all the time?” He came up with several innovative experiments to pursue this study, and ultimately showed that people were happiest and most productive when they had clear goal that focused their attention. When we’re not engaged, our thoughts often become “disorganized,” randomly switching from anxiety, to boredom, to sadness, and everything in between. The key to flow, Csikszentmihalyi learned, was having an engaging purpose that provides opportunities for feedback and growth.
People can experience momentary flow by doing a fun activity—playing golf, reading, painting, and any number of goal directed activities can produce the flow state. But these moments pass all too quickly. The best way to sustain optimal performance, according to Csikszentmihalyi is to find an overarching life goal. He writes:
It is possible to find a unifying purpose that justifies the things [people] do day in, day out—a goal that like a magnetic field attracts their psychic energy, a goal upon which all lesser goals depend. This goal will define the challenges that a person needs to face in order to transform his or her life into a flow activity. Without such a purpose, even the best-ordered consciousness lacks meaning.
When we have clarity and passion about our life’s purpose, nature summons our psychological energy in ways that we cannot tap into otherwise. A clear life goal, “like a magnetic field,” draws our attention back to it again and again. We feel driven to learn and grow. Boredom, anxiety, and self-doubts fade into silence as we heed the clarion call to follow our dreams. Life can be this way when we have a guiding purpose.
Start now. If you have ever felt a quiet desperation inside, wondering whether the activities in your life are leading anywhere, this blog was for you. I’ve been there too. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed. I know how it feels to not feel like you have enough time to do it all. I hope this article has given you some ideas about how to move forward. If you’re ready to live life on purpose, let’s begin now.
Spend some time in the next 24 hours thinking about your life’s purpose. See if you can write it out in less than ten words. Once you have your statement, reflect on it again and again until it becomes part of you. Your ten-word statement will be your compass and measuring stick. It’s your ticket to begin living life on your terms.
Moving forward, you will still have moments of frustration and doubt. There will always be more things to do than you can ever get done. But, if you take the message from this blog to heart, you know that you don’t need to do it all. What matters is that you do what’s most important—that you become clear about your life’s purpose and organize everything around that goal. Always ask yourself, “Is this activity or path relevant to my purpose? Is this the life I want to live?
If, at the end of the day, you can look back and say, “today, I focused on things that mattered most,” you’ve lived well that day. With consistent focus, your days will stack upon each other. Over time, you’ll see measurable progress toward your goals. Some days will surely feel more successful than others. But, as you consistently stay centered on your mission, you’ll live a life you’re proud of, and a life you’re happy with. You’ll live on purpose.
About the Author
Danny Southwick is a researcher for High Performance Institute. In 2015, he earned a master of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently works as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Angela Duckworth and Allyson Mackey.
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