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Want to Be More Productive? Kill Your Career Goals

Career planning: a productivity killer?When you phone up a productivity guru (especially one with a catchy nickname like 'Get-It-Done Guy') for an interview, you expect tips on to-do lists, helpful priority-setting strategies, and the like. What's less expected is a fired-up speech on the need to create a meaningful life for yourself. But that's just what Stever Robbins, author of the new book Get It Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, delivered.

For Robbins, productivity is first and foremost about deciding what's worth spending your time on. The fine tuning of procedural and time-saving techniques comes second. So when he talked to Entry-Level Rebel, his answers sometime verged on the philosophical, as he explained why career goals are a myth and a coin toss is sometimes the best way to choose your career path:

The first step in your book is "live and work on purpose," but what about young people who are still unsure about their career goals. Is it essential that you have firm, concrete goals to get something out of your book?
I'm in my late 40s and I lived with goals for the first 43 years of my life, and then I actually stopped to ask the question, did it work? I called up all of my friends from undergrad and I said, where are you in your life? Where did you think you would be by now and what strategies did you use to get here? Across the board anyone who had an even remotely interesting life, they were there because of a series of coincidences and random encounters that they happened to jump on.

So at this point I've completely repudiated the concept of career goals. I think they're an exercise in futility. Instead, I think about it in terms of developmental experiences that I want to have. So the questions I'm constantly asking are, by the time I die, what are the things I will regret not having done? What are the things that I want to make sure that I do? And then set about figuring out ways to do that.
Are you one of those people then who say follow your passion and the rest will sort itself out?

I do not believe the business about live your passion and the money will follow. Not necessarily. You might follow your passion and you'll be broke. I'm advocating do what you love first and look for ways to make money second. It's a subtle difference.

If you're a musician and you just come home every night, get stoned and watch TV, it's not going to lead anywhere. But if you're a musician and you come home and you think, oh cool, I wonder if I could get church groups to pay me to do my music? That's different. The making money part is not a passive activity, but I would say subordinate that to the passion part.

So rather than focus on career goals you're saying to focus first on life goals and what makes you happy, and then pursue the career opportunities that fit within that?

The conventional wisdom is make your money first and then search for meaning. And all I'm saying is reverse those two. I'm saying search for meaning and do stuff that is deeply engaging to you and then look for ways to make money within that.

And it's possible to have both. It just may be harder because our society isn't set up that way. There are plenty of jobs boards for 'how do I find a job that pays this much money?' We don't have job boards that will tell us 'I want to do something fundamentally helps poverty in the world and I want to get paid a bunch of money for it.'

You have to be a little bit more inventive, but when you ask me, what is more work, having an easy job search and landing a job that makes my life an interchangeable cog in a nameless machine for 40 years, or spending ten years following my passion, having lots of ups and downs and figuring out how to make a living at it -- having a life that at any moment I could be hit by a truck and I would think that I had just had the most fabulous life ever -- I can't image why anyone would take the first choice.

What makes your book different from all the many other productivity books out there?

Most people say 'don't waste your time on things that don't make money.' As far as I am concerned, money is just a proxy currency for life. I say go for the life directly.

My book is about making sure that if you're going to be productive, what you're productive at is creating a life for yourself, not being just being productive at grinding out work for your employer. Again, that's a key difference because most productivity books start with the assumption that what you want to be most productive with is grinding out work. I start with the assumption that what you want to be most productive at is having a fabulous life and, by the way, one piece of that is going to be getting stuff done at work.

The absolute most important part of being productive is being sure you're being productive at something you enjoy. If you get really efficient at doing something you don't enjoy, that means you will get more of it faster. One of the most tragic situations is getting really, really good at something you hate. Then that's the thing you're known for and that's the thing that everyone wants you to do.

How can you find out what are the right things to be productive at -- what your passions are -- because I don't think that's always obvious for a lot of young people?

I would say self-reflection and learning. If you are 25 years old, unless you are a relatively unusual person with a lot of means, chances are really good that you've been exposed to an extraordinarily small fraction of the things there are to be exposed to.

Think of your early career, if not your early life, as a succession of experiments. Get out there and explore and, trust me, you will converge on some set of stuff simply from the fact that human beings have predispositions to like certain things and not other things. The question then is, how do I take my love for those things are turn it into a succession of different businesses and/or money making opportunities.

How would you answer those people who worry all that experimenting will be a huge waste of time, that without direction they'll lose opportunities and income?

I would have thought it was a waste of time too until I did a retrospective analysis at age 40. In retrospect you always have a story to tell about how everything fell together. But your theories about the plans that will unfold are, frankly, just wrong.

I was a volunteer alumni career coach at Harvard Business School for several years and I would just marvel at these 25-year-olds coming into my office, telling me about their career plans. Literally their plans were mythological stories that I can't imagine ever having worked for any human being ever. Yet all of them had these stories about how they were going to get to point B by going through points X,Y,Z. I would just look at them and say, go find me one human being who has actually followed that path. I understand that's how everyone says the path works, but find me examples.

But if you're not aiming for a particular career path, how do you choose what to do â€" which job to take? What things to study?

Flip a coin. Literally. You can't go wrong. You don't know what the right answer is so any answer is equally not your passion. Or, at least, as far as you know yet.

But here's the critical part. Sure, do a crap shoot. Just take whatever job you can get and try it out and see if you like it, but remember that it's a crap shoot. And that's the problem that most people have. They do what's easier or the job they can get, but then they forget that they just did that because they were trying it out. They stay in the job way too long and let themselves get stuck in this career path that may or may not be something they actually consider a life well lived.

If you're going to go out and explore options, remember you're exploring and set a re-evaluation time for yourself. If your job has a 12-month review, you should have an 11-month review with yourself. Spend a weekend away and make a list of all the things you learned about yourself -- what you like and what you don't, what you're good at and what you're not. And also everything you learned about the job â€"- what are the characteristics of this job that you like, of this company? And then say, I'm now almost at the end of a one-year experiment. Do I wish to continue or not?

If you don't do that last part you risk getting caught there for a long time. Frame it as an experiment, decide what you're going to do if the experiment fails, and go on and try something else.

And as you experiment, is the idea to settle on a set path?

There seems to be two types of people in the world. One type of person eventually shifts from data collecting mode into a mode of, 'OK, I know what I want, I've built a career for myself and this is where I am going to happily be for the rest of my life.' I envy those people because I am not one of them.

The other type of person learns stuff, find things they enjoy and then after a certain number of years, they get everything out of it that they are going to get. Then they feel compelled to go and do something different. It lends itself to a very interesting life, but it doesn't lend itself to a "secure" life.

But, on the other hand, the notion that there is any path in life that can lead you to security-- I hate to break it to you, there is no secure path. There are just paths of more or less security and, as far as I'm concerned, the most secure thing you can do is develop a skill set, a self-awareness, so that you can be tossed into any situation and can contribute and add value to it. Because that means even if you get fired or your industry collapses, you'll be able to land on your feet.

(Image courtesy of Flickr user jeff_golden, CC 2.0)

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