What Is Personal Mastery?

In our world of distraction and complexity, even high-performing people are looking for better tools and strategies that can help them leverage their time and be their best. That’s where the term “personal mastery” comes in. It refers to a set of strategies and tools to help you live and work at your peak. Increasing your personal mastery gives you the ability to produce high-quality results and understand and replicate the way you produce these results. Here’s what you can do to build your personal mastery.

Set a Vision

It’s hard to work on personal mastery until you decide what you want to personally master. Setting a vision for your life and career gives you a sense of direction. Identifying your values and thinking about how to live congruently with them gives you purpose, which provides you with scaffolding for your work and life. These can change depending on your circumstances and life stage, so it’s helpful to step back and recalibrate every year or so.

One of my clients is a founder and CEO of a business that he sold last year. While he was operating the business, his focus was—understandably—making the company successful and taking care of his employees. Therefore, his direction was very clear, and his personal mastery operated around optimizing his drive and focus on the business. After he sold the firm, he was still trying to optimize (that’s the kind of guy he is), but he got frustrated. He realized that he just didn’t have a vision of what he wanted to optimize around. He hadn’t taken a step back to assess his situation right now. Once he did that, he realized that his vision now was about service and harmony. Out of that realization, he oriented around a set of causes that were important to him. He conceived of an artists’ colony that he is now building and began learning to play piano.

Give some thought to what you want your own vision to be. That’s the kind of advice that people often hear and say, “Yes, I’ll do that when I have more time.” I can promise you that you’re never going to have more time, so you might just want to take 15 minutes and start it right now. The best way to start is to ask yourself a few questions and write down the answers.

Some good questions are:

  • When do I find myself the most satisfied and fulfilled?
  • What am I doing during those times?
  • What is the purpose of those activities?
  • What are some common threads that come up?

Think about the common themes that come up, and see if these help you tune in to your vision for yourself.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is having a bit of a moment. Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project devoted her first chapter to sleep, and Arianna Huffington has created an entire movement around it. Getting enough sleep heals and restores your body and mind. It leaves you focused, restored and resilient, ready to deal with big and little frustrations throughout the day.

Not getting enough sleep makes you cranky and distracted, forgetful and easily short-circuited. It’s not a great foundation for anything to do with personal mastery.

Use Your Morning Time Intentionally

Build on your restful night by making sure you have a positive morning. Having a consistent morning routine that calms you and nourishes you sets the tone for your entire day. You may tend to wake up early and naturally have a calm morning, or you may have a lot of moving parts with kids and early morning meetings. Either way, find time and space to do a consistent routine that centers you first thing. It will transform your day.

Here are some suggestions for you to build into your morning: breathing or meditation, inspirational reading, writing in a journal or doing gratitude practice, which is what I call writing down three to five things you’re grateful for every day. All of these elements trigger calmness, appreciation and perspective. Research shows that your day is more likely to go better when it starts off on this note.

Hard Things First

Once you’ve completed your morning routine, turn your attention to what strategic and important piece of work you plan to make progress on that day. Your mental energy tends to be highest in the morning. Your time is more likely your own. Use that time and space to make progress on an important and strategic project. Not only will that help you actually complete that important item, but it will also give you an “accomplishment high” for the entire day. That, in turn, infuses your mood, which helps you be more productive and resilient all day—it’s a virtuous cycle.

To start, try defining your morning: I have one client who runs international markets for a large hedge fund; he gets up at 3:30 a.m. most days to talk to contacts abroad. That early time is not “his morning.” He gets to his office by 6:30 a.m.—that’s his morning. He goes into a conference room, closes the door and does an easy stretching routine, meditates for 5 minutes and then pulls out his notebook to write down his one “must win” for the day. Then he goes to his desk and immediately starts working on his “must win.” He’s usually interrupted within 30 or 40 minutes, but by then he has made some progress and knows how he will handle what he needs to. His routine helps him gain perspective and set his intention so that even amidst the chaos of the day he can focus on what’s important.

I have another client, a philanthropist, who sits on three public company boards and four nonprofit boards. He gets up at 7 every morning and makes an espresso. He sits on his porch to write in his journal for 20 minutes, then he goes for a long walk in the woods by his home. When he returns, he focuses on projects that are long-term and strategic for his organizations or his life. By the time his phone starts ringing or the emails start coming, he has already made progress.

Your morning and your life will look different, so you have to tailor your routines to you. You may have five minutes in the morning that you consider available for your morning routine or you may have 90 minutes. Either way, define that time and decide what you will do with it, with the intention of proactively giving yourself a calm and nourishing start and making progress on something that matters.

Self-observation and Reset

Thoughts, actions and mood are unconsciously influenced by stimuli from the outside world. The sun shines and you are in a good mood; it moves behind clouds and suddenly you have a feeling of ennui. You have a difficult conversation with someone at work and you are overly sensitive and quick to take offense in your next meeting; you win a sale, and you are on fire!

Mostly this process happens unconsciously. However, you can reclaim more control over your own state by stepping back, observing your mood and accomplishments throughout the day and consciously resetting.

Here are some questions to ask yourself throughout the day:

  1. What am I thinking and feeling right now?
  2. What energized me so far today?
  3. What discouraged me so far today?
  4. In what ways did these effect my actions?
  5. What actions do I want to take based on what I’ve observed?

Tuning in to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day helps you to see them clearly. This consciousness helps you accept the ups and downs. It also gives you perspective—it’s an opportunity to be realistic about some of the small bumps you’ve had during the day or to focus more deliberately on your personal vision to remind you of the bigger picture.

Insert Motivation

You can proactively insert activities that will motivate you if you are having a lull in energy. For example, turn your attention to a task you enjoy or—even better—a task that will fill you with a sense of accomplishment or purpose. Find a colleague at work you enjoy collaborating with and spend a few moments with her. Call your spouse or take a few deep breaths to regain perspective. Play music that energizes you. If you have a plan for the day, sometimes just getting back on plan is motivating. Life is distracting and fighting for focus is its own reward.

In addition to just making you feel better, improving your mood and motivation level helps you get more done and collaborate better with colleagues. It’s worth the effort.

You have a fixed energy budget. Respect your most valuable time and energy and consciously use it for your most valuable activities. That’s personal mastery.

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