True North: How to Find Your Guiding Light

The North Star, or finding one’s “true north”, is a concept that has come up a number of times in my reading and viewing in recent weeks.

Two examples that come immediately to mind:

1. The Financial Times’ North Star

Responding to the suggestions of a couple of friends who I asked for suggestions as to how I might understand the way money and finance works, I’ve been reading more of the Financial Times.

To be clear, I’ve never ever been a money and finance type of fella. For a long time, I confess, I told myself a story that the people who deeply understand money and finance were over there, and me and everyone else were over here. This is plainly rubbish.

There is an onus on all of us, no matter what stage of life we’re at, no matter how much or how little we might have, to educate ourselves about money and finance. I was never going to invest in the full Financial Times experience, so I decided to order the FT Weekend from my friendly local newsagent.

A month in, the €4 weekly outlay is among the best things I spend each week.

The biggest surprise is that it’s not all about money: for example, there is a weekly feature called “Lunch with the FT”, which is a long interview with an interesting someone around the world. The Life & Arts section is as good as any supplement I’ve seen in any newspaper. The quality of the journalism is extremely high, and you can tell that the writers have been given time and assistance to get to the heart of their stories. The finance world is always hovering around the periphery, but it’s not all markets and share prices and interest rates. Far from it. It’s great. Anyway, back to the concept of “true north”.

As I was paying attention to the FT, I noticed an online Q&A with a couple of their senior digital team members recently. And as a lot of my day to day is helping businesses use the Internet better to make their impact bigger, I decided to check it out. They spoke passionately about their “true north” as a business, and how that has changed in recent years. Having been guided in the past by things like “visitor numbers” and “engagement rates”, they now talk about “lifetime value” as the organisation’s new north star, which is all about how much value they get from and deliver to their customers over the long term.

2. Khe Hy and the Productivity Expert’s “True North”

Over the past few months of coronavirus business impact, there has been an opportunity to reflect on certain things and maybe do them a little differently.

One thing that kept coming up for me is how almost all of my day to day business (things to do, ideas to explore, emails to follow up on or reply to, reports to run, projects to manage) existed somewhere between my head and notes documents on my computer. Too much of it was in my head. So I recently set about trying to get everything that was in my head out of it, and into a system that might help me do things better, quicker and more cost-effectively for me and my customers.

During this I stumbled across the work of a guy in the US called Khe Hy. He’s a productivity expert, who works from the David Allen “Getting Things Done” methodology (Allen’s GTD book has been one of the best-selling business and productivity books of the past several decades.)

And Khe talks about the idea of finding your “true north”. Specifically, he writes about the merits of any given task and why many of us sign up for new tools and tricks and courses in the hope that they will solve things that, for the most part, only self-reflection and behaviour change can really solve. The concept of “true north” is a vital one, as he says in an article about email tools:

Why do you do what you do?
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
Where do you find flow?
Where does work become effortless?
These are thorny and prickly questions that require a lifetime’s worth of contemplation. It’s very tempting to believe that a new tool can help unpack these questions. They can’t.

These two examples — one about a global media organisation with several thousand employees, the other about a very personal relationship with what we want to do — are very different. But there is a lot of crossover.

That’s the thing about having a “true north”. It places everything else in the world in relation to it.

Because the true north of the Financial Times is clear to everyone who works on the team, the place of everything else in relation to that goal is also clear.

And because one person (you, me or Khe Hy) thinks about true north and how it relates to their daily task list, everything else that tries to muscle its way onto the to-do list is clear.

Things become important not because of how urgent it is (which is common) or because of how loudly someone asks for it (which is even more common), but because of how they relate to our “true north” — the one guiding beacon that gives us a deeper understanding of where all other tasks sit.

So, where are you on the journey?

The journey towards one’s “true north” is not a simple one. It often takes months or even years of self-reflection.

And it’s clear from the research that self-reflection is hard. Many people might be familiar with the quotation from the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal which goes:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

If this is true, and I suspect there’s a lot of truth to it, then the opposite must also be true. If the problems stem from the inability, then the way to solve or overcome the problems stem from the ability: the ability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Sitting quietly in a room alone can help you find your true north.

Sitting quietly in a room alone is hard, but it’s necessary. Even if it’s only for five minutes.

Sitting quietly in a room alone does not mean a free house with Netflix for company.

And it doesn’t mean sitting alone with a book, no matter how much the book might help you reflect in the future. (Books are essential, so don’t get me wrong. They can assist greatly on the self-reflection journey, but the time alone comes before or after the reading.)

How to sit quietly in a room alone

1. Daydreaming

Daydreaming is a hugely underrated activity. Back when I was in school, the daydreamer was one of the worst things you could be. If you were gazing out the window, you were liable to get hit on the side of the head by a well-aimed piece of chalk from a teacher who wanted your attention above all else.

But daydreaming can be hugely fruitful.

Your mind is a thought factory. You might have 100,000 thoughts a day. Allowing thoughts just to flow — without adding to task lists, without the need for decisions, without allowing them to surface forgotten commitments (and all the difficulties that forgotten commitments or open loops entail) — is a skill that can be practised.

Having something to look at, and remembering that awareness and presence are your friends, is a great way to start.

Sit, look out a window, notice what you notice, and notice where your mind goes with that.

2. Journalling

While reading is a “reactive mind” activity, journaling (or any type of writing in general) is very much “active mind”.

It’s also active mind in a reflective way that can be hugely valuable for the way we see ourselves.

Journalling can be gratitude tallying, habit tracking, day or week planning, old-style diary entries or freestyle thoughts-to-paper.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters are two things: the intention to be self-reflective, and the activity itself.

There is a type of natural treatment for anxiety and depression disorders called “earthing”. It’s a fancy name for grounding, and it involves touching the earth with our bodies, and the benefits appear to come from the countless invisible protons and electrons that come from the earth, and bringing them into contact with our own bodies through the skin. (There’s a whole stream of Instagram posts related to this, and plenty of science on earthing too.)

Journalling is, I believe, a variation of this.

Paper comes from the remains of trees. There is, literally, a million years of earth in a little notebook you carry in your hand. (This is why paper quality is not just an aesthetic thing; paper quality owes much to the production process, and those systems that are more faithful to the raw material produce a quality that retains more of the carbon from the earth, and from there to offer benefits to your health. In a similar way, real books offer more physical benefits for you than ebooks and all their electronically charged technologies.)

3. Breathing

Breath work is one of the cornerstones of mindfulness meditation. But even without the meditation, the breath work still offers benefits of its own.

Bringing the focus back to the rise and fall of your chest, and how air enters and leaves your lungs, is an investment in the best of being present.

The main thing that makes you and I different from all those who have lived and died is that we, right now, are still breathing.

You and I, we have no idea when this gift will stop. The only thing we can know for certain in this world is that one day, we will stop breathing, and then all our physical consciousness will disappear.

We don’t know what’s next, for our souls, our spirits or our consciousnesses. We can’t know, and that’s okay.

What we do know for sure is that one day, we will no longer possess the ability to breathe, and life as we know it will stop.

Sitting quietly in a room alone, and just breathing, invariably brings us back to the present.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

— Alice in Wonderland

These activities, practised repeatedly, will slowly, steadily and over time reveal your true north to you.

Like the Financial Times business analysts, or any productivity evangelist, your systems and priorities and preferences will change as you grow. So will your true north.

And that’s the point.

Your true north, and mine, become apparent when we bring our awareness back to the present moment.

All our memories and regrets, or hopes and fears, fade away to a lesser importance when we look around us and notice things.

We notice the beauty of the ordinary moment that is available to us right now, and we realise that this beauty is available to us all the time, whenever we choose to pay attention to it.

It is from time in these moments that the direction we must take, the direction that is unique to all of us — our own individual “true north” — will, slowly over time or suddenly one day in one flashing moment, reveal itself to us.

And if we are paying attention, we will see it exactly for what it is.

Job done

A short productivity mantra I’ve been repeating of late.

  • What is the job?
  • What is “done” ?
  • What will it take to get the job done?

Taking three minutes to answer these three questions can save me many hours lost to inefficiency and dead ends.