Be Adaptable: Be Like Water.

Carl Pullein helps people learn to manage their lives and their time so they can experience joy and build a life they are truly proud of.

In 1971, Bruce Lee gave an interview to Pierre Berton in which he famously talked about his philosophy on being like water. The quote:

“Be Water, My Friend.

Empty your mind.

Be formless, shapeless, like water.

You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.

You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.

You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Now water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

When it comes to your day-to-day activities, this is what you are striving for. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, often talks about the same philosophy. We need to create our systems around the way water reacts to a rock. You throw a small stone into a pool of water, and the water ripples and quickly goes back to its original state. If you throw in a large boulder, you’ll likely get a larger splash, but quickly the water returns to its natural state.

It’s this state you want to be harnessing in your daily system. To accomplish that, begin with a plan for the day, so you are less likely to procrastinate, but be flexible enough to switch gears if something more important comes up. Now, I use the words “more important” advisedly. You need to assess whether something new is important or not quickly. Urgent is not necessarily important. Urgent is often loud and demanding, but it may not be important enough when compared to other tasks you have for the day. It’s the ‘small stone’ that needs acknowledging and then moving on.

The way to build a system ‘like water’ is to begin with your long-term goals. Know what these are and what you need to do to achieve them. For instance, if your long-term goal is to start your own business, any opportunity to learn something new within your company will have plenty of benefits for your experience. If you see your current job as just a way to earn money before starting your own business, you miss many potential lessons and experiences.

Next is to know and understand what is important to you. These are what are called your “Areas Of Focus” and are based around eight things:

  • Family and relationships
  • Career/business
  • Finances
  • Health and fitness
  • Spirituality
  • Lifestyle and life experiences
  • Personal development
  • Purpose

All these areas are important, although their order of importance changes depending on where you are in your life. A person in their thirties is likely to have career and business high up on the list. Someone in their early twenties may have lifestyle and life experiences high up on their list.

Your long-term goals and areas of focus need to be written and developed, so you know what action steps and activities you need to be taking consistently to keep moving towards achieving them.

Once you know what these are, your decisions about what you do and don’t do each day become almost natural. You are making decisions about what to do based on what’s best for you and not just following whatever everyone else thinks is important.

When you don’t know your long-term goals and areas of focus, you are likely to overreact to emergencies and the urgencies of others, which never leads you anywhere good.

Your goals and areas of focus give you the direction in which to flow. When a water drop falls in the mountains, it flows downhill towards the river and the sea. Water knows its destination and will not let anything stand in its way. You can place a large rock in the stream, and water will flow around the rock. We can build a dam to stop the water, but eventually, the water will rise and flow over the dam wall. Water will not let anything stand in its way.

But if water does not have a direction, it becomes a pool that stagnates and eventually evaporates. That’s what happens when we have no goals or areas of focus. We have no guide. We react to anything that drops in our inbox and allow it to take on an importance that does not serve us, eventually stagnating.

This sense of direction that your goals and areas of focus give you means that when you plan your week and day, you make decisions about what to do based on what is in YOUR best interests. If you sense you need to speed up and work harder, you will; you slow down if you feel sleepy and tired. But whatever you feel, you still know where you are going. Water does not flow to the sea at a constant speed. There are places where there are obstacles, and the water will flow quickly. Then there are places where there are few obstacles and the water slows down. It’s almost as if the water is having a rest.

The additional tasks that come your way from your boss, colleagues and customers, are just part of the ebb and flow of life. You deal with them to the best of your abilities, but they never divert you from your course. Instead, they add to your experience, you learn, and you improve, and the new knowledge and skills you learn can be used to move you towards your long-term goals.

So, when you are building your productivity and time management system, be like water. Be clear about where you are heading and make sure what you do each day contributes to arriving at the destination you want to reach. That sense of direction will energise you, it will motivate you, and it will help you to avoid procrastination.