Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cyclical vs. Sustainable: How to Feel/Be More Accomplished

Have you ever noticed that you sometimes work all day and still feel like you didn't actually accomplish anything? Maybe you've tried making lists and checking things off. Maybe you've organized your day by splitting time into segments to work on various tasks. All of those strategies can work very well, but let me add another idea that you may not have considered. I think there are two kinds of work: cyclical and sustainable. At first glance, it will look like I've split it into "short-term" work and "long-term" work, but it's more basic than that. And these aren't two completely separate categories; it's a scale. Some tasks will fall in between the two categories.

1. Cyclical.

Cyclical tasks are ones that no matter how many times you complete them, you're going to have to do the same tasks—or other tasks very like them—again and again and again. They are often immediate, which means they must be done—and done often—to maintain your life.  For example, washing the dishes, taking a shower, driving to work, paying bills, making dinner, and brushing your teeth. In some ways, doing work activities like teaching or writing or scheduling appointments or making phone calls or anything else you have to do for your job can also be cyclical tasks—if you approach them the same way every time or don't learn from them.

Essentially, cyclical tasks help you stay afloat. They maintain your house, your health, your job, etc. They help you stay where you are. If you like where you are, it is probably okay to do a greater number of cyclical tasks. But remember: if you're not going forward, you're going backward.

Just because it is immediate does not mean it's what is most important. I'm not suggesting you stop brushing your teeth. I'm just saying you will probably never think back to that time you were brushing your teeth on November 6th, 2008, and think about all the plaque you prevented.

2. Sustainable.
A sustainable task is one that involves working toward something greater than what you have now. For example, learning to speak Spanish. Some of the activities you'd have to do to learn a language would seem cyclical, but the final product is sustainable. See the difference?

Sustainability can also mean doing it right the first time like your mother said. Building the shed won't be a cyclical activity if you build it well enough that the roof doesn't cave in when it snows. This category is pretty broad, and in a moment you'll see why I said some activities could fall between the two categories. Examples of sustainable tasks might be: building a fence, making a friend, learning a new skill, applying for a new job, writing a book, teaching a kid to be kind to others, giving a gift, etc.

(Notice how I included "writing a book?" I love that even though I have to get up and go to work every morning no matter what I did today, I can open my computer, and the chapter I wrote yesterday will still be there. Sustainability.)

What's my point? That sustainable activities are always better than cyclical activities? No. I'm saying that if you do mostly cyclical activities, you won't move forward. But if you do all sustainable activities, you'll probably sink. I'm suggesting a balance between the two. Also, if you recognize that cyclical activities strung together can often lead to something more sustainable, you're halfway there. Next time you feel like you didn't accomplish anything (or you're planning tomorrow's schedule), think about what you can do to include both cyclical and sustainable activities into your life.

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