Foundation First

The hardest part of becoming a better mess is examining the things you’ve done for years and having the courage to admit that many of them are wrong. For the sake of practicing what I preach here, I want to share what was probably my biggest realization from the past year of getting my crap together. When you first set out to improve it isn’t about what you are looking to accomplish as much as it is building a foundation upon which you can do almost anything.

In any attempt at something new, you always need to pick up new skills. If what you’re aiming for is even mildly ambitious, honing those skills and actually doing the work are going to take up a tremendous amount of your focus. What this often means is that seemingly unimportant skills like email management get relegated to second-class priorities (if they even rank as priorities at all). And that lack of a sound foundation for handling the little things can often be your undoing.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “Oh please, everyone knows how to handle email,” and to an extent you’re right. The basics of writing, sending and receiving emails is something many of us have been doing all of our lives. That said, truly scaling the onslaught of emails, having a process for managing the wave of paper that comes across your desk, knowing how to stay on top of the unlimited tasks at hand or even the basics of delegation are the things that consistently unravel us in our careers.

All of this leads me to a confession: last year I was less ambitious than I have ever been. I delivered things I’m proud of, but I was unconsciously taking a step back from several of my larger goals. It took me a while to understand why, but over time I came to realize what I was trying to tell myself. After years trying and failing to simultaneously develop the specific skills needed for projects and the general skills required to get through the day, I’d had enough. What I really needed to do was slow down, focus in on the fundamentals and completely rebuild my foundation.

That step back likely hurt me last year (or at least it probably hurt my wallet), but for the first time in my life I feel ready to take on anything. I feel like I have enough of a process to handle my work in a way that lets me focus on the tasks at hand. I won’t be distracted by email overload, I won’t have papers all over my desk and I won’t fret over which tasks are needed to meet my goals. I may have taken a step back, but it gave me the time to find the tools, discover the processes and build the habits that I’ve always needed to propel myself forward.

For some, figuring out what’s needed on the fly won’t be an issue1, for others this will prove to be a challenge. In my case, it took the tools and tactics I talk about in the Techie Scheky series. In yours, a good notebook might be all that’s needed to do the trick. The approach isn’t nearly as important as finding what works.

While I’m only just beginning to see the fruits of my foundation, I feel more prepared and more ambitious than ever before. Only time will tell if the risk of taking a step back pays off, but I know that without a sound foundation everything would have inevitably come crashing down.

Have you ever taken a step back to prepare yourself to move forward? Do you have a process for little everyday tasks or has that always seemed unnecessary for you? When was the last time you had an honest conversation with yourself about where you consistently fall short?


  1. But seriously, screw them.  

10 Responses to Foundation First

  1. [...] goals, take the time to find one. Last year, I needed to do this. I had to take a step back and build up a foundation upon which I could accomplish my work. If you have a system and worry it could be 2% better, do yourself a favor and stop. I’m just [...]

  2. [...] At the end of the episode, Patrick mentioned that he felt that more than anything, it’s essential that we embrace who we are. I couldn’t agree more, but when it comes to ADD and ADHD I’d suggest taking it a step farther. I spent years embracing my own ADHD and while that made me happy, it held me back. Over time, I found that it was not enough to work around it, I had to work through it. You certainly want to embrace what makes you you; but if it is ADD, it’s manageable, so seriously consider managing it. He’s 100% right that you have to lean in and learn to swim with it rather than constantly trying to fight against it, but it doesn’t hurt to learn how to be a better swimmer either. I can only speak for myself here, but to get anything meaningful done, I needed to find a framework to help me along. [...]

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for sharing. Having ADHD, I sometimes think it might be better to find ways to operate/find a job that steers clear of all my weaknesses, but that seems career limiting. Since so far I’ve continued in my chosen field despite my weaknesses, I’ve also had to really focus on my foundation in a way that most people would never need to, for several years. I’ve paid a cost in terms of career delay in the short term, (maybe a year or two behind where I’d like to be), but also feel a lot of confidence now having a mastery of sleeping well, eating well, empty inbox, a clean living area, the ability to plan and set goals, and be considered reliable and thorough. That ability to rely on the self does make the world seem like a place of so much more opportunity, less full of dead-ends. A world-view changer!

    I use… a lite version of the GTD system + Merlin Mann for email, pomodoro apps for phone and office, StayFocusd for chrome, Wunderlist for phone, Google Drive for tracking things especially spreadsheets and journaling, email system for ubiquitous capture, paper & pen for ad hoc todoing.

Leave a reply