Recently, I had a dream that I was a farmer.
I needed to harvest my crops, but I was distracted and didn't get the job done on time. It got me thinking, farmers have no choice when they get to harvest their crops and there are serious consequences if they don't do it on time.
The stress of the dream turned me off from the seemingly rigid and high-stakes lifestyle of farmers, but I couldn't get it out of my head. I began comparing farming to the two types of work in my life: knowledge work and personal projects.
At the time, knowledge work was frustrating. In theory, I had clear responsibilities and my boss would assign me projects to complete, but in reality, things were very ambiguous. I had multiple ongoing projects and only mild consequences for spending my time incorrectly. With those conditions, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out what to do.
Similarly, working on personal projects was almost insurmountable. I could choose to do anything in the world, and there were no consequences for coming up short. I was paralyzed by the paradox of choice and without external contstraints, I never made much progress.
Comparatively, farming seemed easy. Farmers roll out of bed, know exactly what needs to be done, and they do it. They can't negotiate with nature, so they have no decisions to make and they are always motivated to get their work done because the consequences are so severe if they don't. It makes life simple.
In an effort to simplify my life as a knowledge worker juggling multiple personal projects, I decided to live more like a farmer. First, I removed the uncertainty around what I was doing to find clarity and limit decision-making. Next, I created constraints to provide structure and consequences. Finally, I was able to focus on execution with intention.
To find clarity in my work and projects, I started by writing down all my responsibilities and goals and organizing them on paper.
I began by writing down everything I was responsible for and everything I wanted to do regularly. With all these responsibilities and ideas out of my head, I moved on to writing down my goals. I focused on long-term goals or aspirations and what an ideal state would look like 2-3 years down the road.
Once I felt like I captured all the floating thoughts from my head on the page, I began building relationships between goals and actions to identify highly leveraged activities.
With my goals as headers on the page, I wrote all the responsibilities or actions that moved me closer to those goals in columns underneath them. Some responsibilities/actions supported multiple goals and some didn't support any.
This created a clear view of highly leveraged activities that had a large impact towards one goal or helped me closer to multiple goals simultaneously. It also showed me the activities that I enjoyed for their own sake or had an obligation to complete, but didn't move me closer to my goals.
I now had clarity surrounding the most impactful things I needed to do on a regular basis. I always naturally had an idea of what important actions I needed to spend time on, but this exercise provided a framework to prioritize action in direct relation to its effect on long term outcomes.
The hardest part of knowledge work and personal projects is the overwhelming nature of being able to work on many different things. This uncertainty made it difficult for me to invest fully in any activity because I had a lingering feeling it may not be a good investment of time.
Clarifying what activities were important meant I no longer had to decide where to focus my energy throughout the day. The same way nature decides the farmer's daily objectives, clarifying my highly leveraged activities decided where I needed to focus each day, but simply knowing which activities to focus on is only half of what makes farmers' lives so simple.
Constraints are the other piece of the puzzle. They create structure and help focus energy in the right place at the right time. My days were largely unstructured and even after clarifying what I needed to do, I was still grappling with the issue of when to work on different projects and how to organize my time.
Farmers have constraints that design their daily architecture. They wake up when the rooster crows, water the crops before the sun reaches its peak in the sky, and need to have their work done before the sun goes down in the evening.
The only constraints I had in place were loose work hours and approximate bed and wake times. Even after I figured out what activities were my highest priorities, I still had many different projects to choose from every time I sat down. Often, I defaulted to highly leveraged activities, but I still felt like I was guessing when it came to my schedule.
In the spirit of the farmer, I experimented with adding constraints to know when to work on specific projects. I realized most of my work meetings were scheduled in the afternoons, so I focused on clearing my inbox before lunch. It was a small change that had a huge positive impact on my workday.
I began to brainstorm similar constraints based on the existing factors in my day. I stopped relying on time in the evening to write because cooking dinner always took longer than I anticipated. Instead, I constrained all my writing to the mornings.
I stopped feeling guilty for distracted writing in the evening and started reading at night instead. This shift pushed me to reorganize my morning routine to create uninterrupted writing time. I also needed to exercise in the morning, so I changed my alarm to give me enough time to write, exercise, and eat breakfast before work.
As I created more constraints in my workday and personal life, the critical activities became non-negotiable. These blocks of time have become the foundation of my day and provide structure to build around. This allows me to focus on one thing at a time and gives me the flexibility to experiment with my schedule to find what works best.
After finding clarity in both what to do and when to do it, by removing uncertainty and creating constraints, the only thing left is a farmer's specialty, execution.
All of the energy I used to spend figuring out what to do and when to do it can now focused on the task at hand. The cognitive load of making small decisions throughout the day is gone and I can use 100% of my energy on writing, exercising, email, or whatever priority is in front of me.
I'm no longer worried about missing something important or wondering if I'm spending my time wisely. Instead, I can immerse myself in my work and create better outcomes.
I thought the rigid schedule and external constraints of a farmer were stressful and complicated, but applying the same principles to my life has simplified my days and allowed me to create work at a higher output than before.
I wake up each day knowing that the most important things will be done, nothing will slip through the cracks, and the quality of my work will be excellent.
Adopting a new way of approaching my daily responsibilities took some time to get used to, but the process I went through to find clarity, create constraints, and ultimately focus on execution is repeatable. If you'd like to implement some of the ideas into your life, try out the exercise below.
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