To Do or To Be? That Is The Question!

Most of my days start with the question: What do I have to do today? I run a series of filters that includes deadlines, unfinished projects, obligations, schedule, correspondence and personal needs. These filters create a specific focus for the day: Get these things done.

Recently, though, I began an experiment by considering what might happen if I prioritized a different question. When the habitual question comes, I’ve redirected my thought pattern to start the day by asking: Who do I want to be today?

alarm clock2

The Bible tells a story about Jesus visiting his friends Mary and Martha. In their house, Mary sat with him and engaged as a thoughtful listener. Martha, on the other hand, was distracted by all that had to be done. So Jesus said to Martha:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik is famous for having established the Zeigarnik Effect, which says that unfinished tasks impair our ability to focus, and once we cross items off our to-do list, we generally forget about them.

Therefore, if my driving question is What do I have to do? I’m ruminating on productivity; my ability to be who I want to be is impaired by a running to-do list that I will eventually forget about anyway.

It reminds me of the Jack Johnson lyric:

He stabbed the moment in the back with a brown thumb tack

Then held up the list of things he gotta to do

On the other hand, investing in character and relationships has the opposite result: the time we invest will not be taken away from us.

During my experiment, I’ve had several instances where I’ve been in the middle of my work and stopped, remembering my driving question. It has caused me to re-focus on how I’m working and, in some cases, drop what I’m doing to sit with people, thoughtfully listen and consider: What kind of person do I want to be at work and in life?

Of course, there are many times when we need to focus on the task at hand. We need to roll up our sleeves, put our head down and keep working. Hard work is a virtue. The balance between doing and being, though, is usually determined long before the work begins. It begins with the question that we prioritize at the start of each day.

What do I have to do?

Who do I want to be?

What question drives your day?



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  • Paul Batz
    April 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    So proud of your development as a blogger Matt. You are growing, and your ideas are world class. Of course you know…the question I ask is: How will I radiate goodness today? That’s kind of our thing.

    • Matt Norman
      April 13, 2016 at 3:29 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Paul. It is especially meaningful given the respect I have for you as a writer and thinker. Your question is a very good one and your brand speaks to it!