Life is not a Bunch of Tasks

By Chris Chittenden

"We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality."

…Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999) Irish author

Bucket lists, to do lists, KPIs. These are just some of the things designed to help people live a fulfilling life in today's fast paced world. However, for many people they take over their world. They are compelled by the things they think they have to do.

It seems many of us spend our lives doing one task after another. We do one thing, finish it and then do the next thing and repeat this until we collapse at the end of the day and fall into bed only to get up the next day and repeat the process. And yet, we never seem to have time to do all we want to get done, so we learn time management skills to get better at doing our many tasks more efficiently. And still we cannot do all we want to do. It is little wonder that many people feel overwhelmed, unfulfilled and unsuccessful in life.

Now you may be thinking this article will be all about how to better deal with having to do too much in life, but it is not. What I want to focus on this month is not about developing better time management skills but what happens for us when we see life as a series of things to do. When our focus on tasks and task lists drive us.

I do not wish to imply that we should ignore the role of tasks and task management as as a means to help us manage what we wish to complete in life. What I want to invite you to think about is what can happen if we see tasks as part of life rather than as defining our life. In other words, to step away from defining everything as a task. Let me use an example to highlight what I mean.

Many organisational leaders decide they should have a set of values to underpin the culture of their organisation. They set aside time to develop those values, normally word smithing them ad nauseum until they come up with some words that are seen as generally acceptable to those involved. The values are then put up around the building and into some documents and then any attention to them tends to peter out. Sound familiar?

One of the possible reasons this can occur is that many of those involved in the creation of values see this as a task with the outcome being the words themselves. Once the task is done they move onto the next task, forgetting about why they created the values in the first place. They perceive that what is required is some words and not the embodiment of those values into daily organisational life to generate a desirable organisational culture.

One way of looking at this differently, and I feel more effectively, is to see life as a continuum of experience rather than a set of things to be done. Life is not just what we do but also what we believe and how we feel at any given moment during the day. If we apply that to my values example, then the approach to bringing the organisational values forth might be different.

The organisational leader(s) could still go through a process to come up with some values. Ideally these values are based on a framework covering the key elements of culture, such as the Human Synergistics constructive styles. The key is to not spend too much time word smithing these, as to do so creates the impression that once the values are defined the task is complete. Rather, once the values have been defined, the challenge is to bring them to life and create a shared understanding of what they mean. This is done in part by drawing on experiences as they occur and determing whether those experiences fit the values or not and having conversations to develop shared meaning. The difference is to appreciate that the creation of values is not a task to find words but an ongoing experience in creating shared meaning. So rather than simply seeking the creation of values as a task with an objective outcome, it is seen as an ongoing experience to embody those values and bring meaning to them.

This speaks to life in general. Rather than thinking of life in terms of the things you have to do, we can think of it in terms of the experiences we are having. We don't just have to go to the supermarket to do the shopping and get the things on the list. We could go and embrace the experience of shopping. We can take in the people, the smells, the sounds. We could follow that old cliche and "stop and smell the roses" as we go through life. We may well find ourselves living a more fulfilled and satisfying life and still get things done.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden