Defining Your Purpose 30 Days at a Time

by Jeff Hittner

Why Planning for the Near Future, Not the Uncertain Future, Is Essential During COVID-19

A compass needle never stops moving, even when you’re still on course.

— Mark Nepo

I’m based in NYC and I used to travel weekly across the country. The early days of COVID-19 for me were devastating. Our hospital announced I would be unable to attend and support my wife through her labor and delivery. I had mild COVID symptoms but couldn’t get tested. At home, I had a 3-year old that couldn’t play by himself, an exhausted and pregnant wife who needed time to work and help raise our son. Days were never-ending. 

Fast forward a few months and we have found a semblance of a rhythm. The NY governor’s executive order declared all laboring women had the right to have their partners in the hospital. We have a healthy and happy new baby boy. Our jobs are still secure. The point is, measured against week one in lockdown, we’re doing great!  

In this crisis, we are expected to make critical decisions daily. Some involve our physical safety — and those of our loved ones. Others involve our psychological well-being and those we communicate with. 

As leaders and managers, our voices have the power to evoke overwhelming anxiety in our staff desperate to hold onto their jobs.  As parents and friends, our words also have the potential to calm a frightened soul or isolate a loved one when misinterpreted. How we talk to ourselves matters just as much.

Focusing on our long-term personal and professional goals is not the solution right now. To make decisions and be our best selves amid so much uncertainty, we need to be grounded and present.

We need a renewable 30-day purpose plan.

Purpose is a mindset and the clues are hidden in plain sight. It starts with viewing your world through a new lens—one of your immediate progress over the last month, what you have unlearned, and how you define momentum.

How do you create a 30-day purpose plan that you can rely on when things get tough, and edit and build on when you need to?

Exploit the gain not the gap

To dream of the person you want to be is to waste the person you are.

— Sholem Asch

When we experience trauma, we can magnify and obsess over our fears, expectations, and identities. Now is the time to stop measuring your actions and results against some unobtainable idealized vision of the future. The immediate future, and more broadly, the next 12-18 months is uncertain for everybody. You need only glance at the evening news to know this much.

Start by only measuring your progress to-date against your starting point in the lockdown. Stop comparisons to your life before.

Here are several questions you can use regularly to reflect on your progress during COVID-times:

  1. What new knowledge have you gained about how to work remotely under stressful situations and distractions?
  2. What have you unlearned about how you measure yourself and who you ought to be?
  3. How have you become closer to the people you are self-quarantining with?
  4. How have your relationships with children, parents, and loved ones changed? What can you do to make them flourish?
  5. How are you grieving? What are you grieving?

For myself, I’ve learned that a morning and evening routine are essential to keeping me sane and supportive of my family through these days. I’ve also learned that I won’t always get to those routines, and that’s ok. I’ve learned that I need to create forcing functions—acts that ensure I don’t fall into negative feelings—in order to be my best self with my family. This means ignoring the news before lunchtime. It means no cell phone in the bed. It means when I need to take care of my son instead of work, I leave my phone way out of reach so I can be present for him.

When we measure our current self against our past selves—the people we were before life turned upside down—we can be more self-compassionate and connect to a state of awe of how far we have come.   

Change Your Definition of Success

Some people will never learn anything for this reason: because they understood everything too soon.

Alexander Pope

Focusing on your 30-day gains demands a new definition of success. No longer is your reference point a 3-year strategic goal or 12-month sales numbers (or your bonus for that matter). With these traditional markers suddenly inapplicable, we each must define success for ourselves.

If there are opportunities in this crisis, one is the chance to examine what you’ve prioritized in the past. Ask yourself, where does my definition of success come from? Most of us define success through the lens of a culture that prizes currency: money, as well as the social currencies of prestige and influence. It’s not hard to imagine why.

Our parents, teachers, step-aunts, and universities have been supplying us with their own definitions of success and career since before we can remember. Whether that comes in the form of a comment like “You’re so good with LEGOS, you should be an engineer” or an especially keen interest in your income, title, and car make, you’ve been hearing those voices for a long time. 

Just before COVID-19, my father-in-law told me I needed to get a corporate job ASAP because I’d soon be passing the age where getting hired into a big company would be possible. This was news to me, of course. But his point was that—in his eyes— safe, responsible work was work that involved 10,000 cubicles and colleagues. That’s not true for anyone right now.

The expectations can be even heavier for women. Even in 2020, women are still expected to have accomplished it all: a family, children, a prestigious career, a comfortable salary, and a nice figure to boot. And don’t forget to add home-schooling extraordinaire.

It’s important to name these expectations. What have you added to your list of expectations for yourself during the lockdown?

Here are a few ways you can start to seed a more nuanced view of success for yourself:

  1. Carry your eulogy virtues with you. David Brooks has written extensively on resume virtues versus eulogy virtues. Too many of us spend all our energy focused on our resume virtues, and yet when we come to the end of our lives, none of these titles carry weight. Instead, we focus on what truly gives life meaning: things we deeply valued and how we impacted others. So, as a shortcut to literally writing your own eulogy, carry around with you the collection of values that make you most proud to be the person you are.
  2. A new vision. Create a new vision for yourself that encompasses all the ways you would define a successful life. Write a paragraph about each of these themes and what “success” would mean in each of them. These might be your themes:
    1. Family
    2. Friends
    3. Career
    4. Faith/Spirituality
    5. Health

For example, my description under family is: 

Our two children are deeply loved and cared for by my wife and me, by each other, and by our amazing network of extended family and friendsOur oldest is thriving in his home school experience. He has all the tools and support he needs to grow, learn, and love. He is an amazing big brother. I often see him reading to his younger sibling and inviting him/her to play with him.

Redefining productivity

Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.

— Tim Ferriss

Don’t measure your daily worth by the completion of your checklist.

We’re obsessed with productivity. Our workday can feel unsuccessful if we don’t accomplish. For many of us, that measure of accomplishment is a long to-do list and being glued to a desk for eight hours straight. In the midst of a global pandemic, this list is created by us.

Yes, you’ll want to set goals for yourself each day, but find measure and have other ways to reflect on a “successful” day. These are not normal times. They don’t require normal expectations. 

For example, I set out to have one meaningful conversation each day and check in with at least one friend. If my checklist is far from complete, I rely on this to confirm my day was “productive.”

Check in with your feelings many times a day. And just as importantly, check in with those locked up with you. The answer to a simple question like “what do you need right now?” could result in you feeling more purposeful then any completed checklist would.

And if all else fails?

This brings us full circle to purpose. We’re living in a world that has been suddenly and permanently changed forever. And with that, our identities are being reframed, whether we realize it or not—it’s part of the grief we feel. Our purpose should be, too.

If you can’t zero in on a temporary calling, here’s what I’ve recommended for years to anyone on their journey to (re)discovering their purpose:

Get a sticky note and write GROW + GIVE on it. Put it on your bathroom mirror. Every morning, when you get up, and you’re brushing your teeth, look at it and ask yourself these questions:

How am I going to grow today? 

Who am I going to give back to?

These actions are at the core of purpose. Purpose is a connection to something greater than ourselves. Purpose moments reveal themselves like breadcrumbs leading to a treasure when we make efforts to enhance others.

So each night, when you are getting ready for bed, and you’re back in the bathroom, (hopefully) brushing your teeth, look at that sticky note again and reflect.

How did I grow today? 

Who did I give back to?

The emotionally and spiritually sane response to the world around us is to prepare to be forever changed. Start with the next 30 days.

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