Below is a chapter release to my next book, Redwood. I’m releasing each chapter as I write it, as a part of my 2016 Writing Quest.

Redwood is a book on how we can optimize our environment and our habits to create remarkable lives. As John Steinbeck once wrote, from redwood trees come silence and awe. We have the power to create this same remarkability in our own lives.

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Giving Intention Attention

There’s a few reverberating themes in my writing that are the foundation of a positive mindset and life well-lived. One of those themes is intention. As one definition states, intention is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future. Put even simpler, intention is awareness directed through an action. To live intentionally, we must first be aware of the world around us, and then intentionally set out to become the person we desire within it. Intention deserves so much page space, because it’s so utterly easy to live our lives unaware and without intention. More than any other point in history our attention is diverted this way and that, and when outside forces are vying for our attention they often succeed in acquiring it.

In his bestselling book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, author Chris McChesney describes the external forces that compete for our time and attention each day as the appropriately named “whirlwind”. He calls it the whirlwind because if we allow ourselves to get caught in it, it’s tough to get out. While his book is written for businesses as a guide to leadership and time management, it’s equally as applicable to our lives as a whole as well. When we don’t live our days with awareness and intention, time will continue to march no matter how we spend its hours, minutes, and seconds. The whirlwind of life will gladly suck us in without us even knowing it.

When it comes to our daily environment, the awareness and intention we bring to it has significant impact on our productivity and happiness. Much like a city can help or hamper our growth, the microlevel of that is the daily environment we create for ourselves within that city. This is another one of those truths that looks different for everyone, and as such cannot be taught in a book. We all operate at different speeds, thrive on different environments, and require different settings to optimize our daily setting. So to know what works best for you requires what I mentioned prior – awareness. When we give our environment awareness, it’s easy to recognize how we best operate, and what sort of daily environment we need to give ourselves the best chance possible for growth.

I know for myself that working from coffee shops is my most optimal environment when I need to crank out quality, or quantity for that matter, work loads. The combination of the music, the people, and the smell of the coffee gives me the perfect amount of focused energy to GSD (get sh*t done!) while still absorbing and appreciating my surroundings. Coffee shops are the perfect window into the soul of a city and community, and this window provides me creative energy as well as a motivation to simply get great work done. The opposite environment for me, the one I try to avoid, is my environment when working from home. The dog, the cat, and the couch are simply too powerful of distractions to motivate me into producing great work. It’s fine enough for some emailing, planning, and other mundane work, but when it comes to truly creating I need to leave my house to do so.

Daily Framework

When talking about creating our optimal environment, I like to think of our days as having a framework. Much like a house must first be framed before the walls any shiny finishings can be installed, our days must first be framed before we can install our habits and best work. Having a framework for our days makes it much easier for us to simply focus on getting our best work done. Why is framework so critical to having a positive daily environment, each and every day? Because framework eliminates decision fatigue. And when we eliminate decision fatigue, we can focus all of our energy toward that one thing we’re after – creating our best work.

To start, you may be asking yourself what exactly decision fatigue is. For the most part, it’s exactly what it sounds like – mental fatigue brought on by making too many decisions. It’s one of those invisible forces that has a presence in all of our lives, but often we don’t have the awareness to recognize it. One of the more famous examples of intentionally paring down on decision fatigue is Steve Jobs and his signature black turtleneck and jeans. Steve did not wear this somewhat ridiculous outfit virtually every single day of his working life to make a fashion statement. He wore it because it was one less decision he’d have to make during his day. And freeing up that mental space meant more room for making decisions where it mattered most – his creative work.

Framing our days is much like this Steve Jobs example, except on an even larger scale. When we have a framework for how we operate and structure each day, we allow ourselves ample amounts of mental space to get our best work done. If we wake up each morning without a plan in place, it means one of two things will happen. Either we will waste the first hour or more of our day simply figuring out what that day will look like, or we’ll allow ourselves to get sucked right into the whirlwind, never intentionally making the most of the day. Both of these are poor options, and an incredibly suboptimal environment for trying to produce our best work and stimulate growth. Implementing a daily framework eliminates these options. This daily framework should consist of two things – space and time constructs. Space constructs are what I was referring to earlier in my coffee shop example. It’s the space that allows us to produce our best work, and it’s different for everyone. What works for you, works for you, and that’s all that matters. We must first be aware of how our daily environment affects us, and then intentionally frame in an environment that supports our growth goals. But it starts with deciding what this space construct is, and intentionally implementing it into our days.

The second construct that makes up our daily framework is time. This means that every day we’re intentional about how we spend each hour and minute. In the GROWTH section of this book I’ll get more specific into the habits and tools we can use to optimize our time, but it starts with creating a framework of for our hours. This construct should include a starting time, a stopping time, and being fully present during those times. The starting time is critical because it’s a lot easier to hit the snooze button, read the paper a bit longer, or linger over our eggs a few more minutes when we don’t have a hard start time that shifts our mindset into creation mode. The stop time is critical because creating the best version of ourselves includes things outside of our work. A stop time allows us the freedom to shift from work and creation mode into whatever other mode we need most in our lives – family time, social hours, alone time in the gym, or anything else. Parkinson’s Law states that our work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Without a stop time in place, our work will naturally expand to fill the time we allot it. And the reverse is also true. Implementing a stop time each day kicks us into gear to complete whatever work we need to get done into the hard stop time we’ve allotted to it.

By having a framework for when we’re working, when we’re resting, and when we’re playing, we give ourselves the freedom to be fully present during those times. If we don’t have a stop time for our work, even if we step away to grab a drink with friends or spend time with our families, oftentimes our minds are still wrapped up in our work. We haven’t built in the mindset of leaving work at work, and being fully present in the moment we’re in. The same is true for our personal lives. If we drag those matters into our work time, it’s very difficult to produce at our best because our mind is elsewhere. Setting time and space constructs for our day does not eliminate this entirely, but it gives us a big advantage by not allowing our mindset to float freely between our various worlds.

The Freedom of Structure

When we think of the term “freedom” what do we think of? Lying on a beach? Being on a road trip? Running through a wide open field? Whatever we individually think of, it most likely ties back in some way to being unshackled. One of the many definitions of freedom is the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. And so you and I, being rational human beings, paint the picture in our heads that freedom equates to not having something: a boss, a job we have to go to every day, bills, so on and so forth.

But what are we really imprisoned by in today’s society? It’s not our bosses. It’s not our jobs. It’s not our to-do list. It’s having no clue how to manage it all. We are inundated with information, distractions, responsibility, and stress more than ever before. We want to flee from it when it becomes overwhelming, but maybe it’s not that we need to take something away. Maybe we actually need to add something. Enter structure, and specifically enter a framework for operating our daily environments. In today’s hyper connected and hyper “busy” world, our definition of freedom needs to change. It is no longer the absence of something, but instead it’s the presence of something else – structure – that allows us to approach our life and days with a clear head. That is structure. And there is freedom in structure.

Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University says this about decision fatigue.

“Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex. It’s the same willpower that you use to be polite, or to wait your turn, or to drag yourself out of bed, or to hold off going to the bathroom. Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone’s offensive remark, or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time.”

My prior description of decision fatigue wasn’t nearly as exciting as Roy’s, and I think his paints a more accurate picture of the truth surrounding the impact of structure, or lack of structure, in our lives. The real reason for setting up a framework and structure to our days is because it provides freedom. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the truth. Decision fatigue removes our ability to make the best decision possible or put forth our best work. Over the past several years of managing teams, starting companies, and studying personal growth, I’ve learned this the hard way and I’ve realized there truly is nothing more freeing from this perpetual decision fatigue than structure.

Structure is precisely the thing that gives us room to operate freely. An airplane does not fly from one destination to another without any sense of navigational direction. Instead it has boundaries to operate from. The plane’s computer knows the boundaries that the plane can fly within, and these boundaries are what give the plane and the pilot the freedom to simply operate to the best of their ability. If the pilot didn’t have these boundaries or any navigational direction to operate from, that wouldn’t be freedom. It would be chaos. Our lives are no different. Structure and framework provide us the freedom to operate to the best of our own abilities. Most of that freedom lies in our mindset, having ample room to create because we’re not wasting energy on where we are or what we should be doing. We’ve built a framework that has already answered those questions, so all we have to do is the work itself.