Is it really worth staying on top of everything?

Is there a difference between staying on top of things and working toward your goals? I’ve come to think that there is. Being in control over all the elements of your life can work synergistically toward your goals or it can distract you from what really matters.

For example, there are some highly successful people who were not “on top of everything” in the traditional sense. Beethoven changed the course of music history, but by most accounts many aspects of his life and personal affairs were in total disarray. I don’t really think many of the great tech “garage” start-ups–at least in the early days– were tweaking their schedule and going to yoga class to get a nice work-life balance. On the other hand I’ve read that Michelangelo would often oversee even the most mundane details of his business operations, but somehow this didn’t prevent him from being inhumanly prolific.

One thing that does seem to hold true for almost all successful people is their ability to be fairly single-minded. Even people who seem to produce a lot of great things, if you look at them closely, still tend to focus on one thing at a time for extended times (often years or decades) before moving to something else.

So the question really becomes something more like “How ‘on top’ of everything do you need to achieve your one single goal? What balance works optimally for your temperament and context?”

For me it works like this: I tend towards messiness and disorganization to such an extent that it creates a lot of drag, confusion, and stress. I can also neglect basic things like my overall health and stress levels. So after a while, letting this stuff slide takes its toll on my overall effectiveness. I function best in a fairly ordered environment, but I’m not ordered by nature, so devoting a decent period of time to staying scheduled and making sure I’m doing basic things like cleaning the house, staying organized, exercising etc. is worth my time.

On the other hand, as I think Dan Kennedy said, “success is made in a messy kitchen.” Devoting all of your time to getting everything just right is a sure-fire way not to get anything anything done. I can easily spend all day replying to e-mails, paying the bills, getting my desk clean, and on and on ad infinitum. This feels like work but in reality it’s just a day that will blend in with the mass of “nothing really happened” days in my past.

For me the right balance is having a clear idea of my task schedules, and staying up to date with my health and exercise. Anything less and I won’t function optimally. Anything more and I’ll be wasting my time. So what works for you?

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