5 Steps to Living the Strategic Life – by Graham Kenny

Businesses that fail to develop a strategic life typically fail to be competitive. If leaders don’t set aside time to develop strategy, day-to-day matters absorb all the attention, and the present overtakes the future. The result? Opportunities pass quietly by.

You may not be aware of it, but you may not be living a strategic life. The urgent may be overtaking the important. The result is the same. Opportunities pass you quietly by. And before you know it, a decade passes, and you’re still stuck in the same rut with your happiness suffering.

But just like business you can avoid this. That’s important because it means instead of events controlling you, you shape events. The upshot is that you achieve what you want for yourself not what someone wants for you.

Here are five steps to applying the tricks of business to achieve a more strategic and happier life.

  1. Take Time to Reflect

Lawrence leads a very busy life, one he describes politely as “head down, bottom up.” He and his wife Vanessa have high-pressured jobs, alongside the childcare juggle to care for their four-year-old daughter. To use the language of business, Lawrence’s life is very “operations focused.” His solution in the past has been to try to improve his efficiency. However, time management only takes him so far.

To change to a strategic life, he’s developed a routine which involves walking. “I find it a real decompressor,” he says. “It’s active relaxation. It provides me with an opportunity to cut through the noise and to have some me-time for real strategic thinking.”

It doesn’t have to be walking. Some people get out into the garden early each morning, go to the gym, do yoga, write a journal, or go swimming. Whatever your medicine, you must make time to get away from the hurly-burly of daily life to think strategically.

Think of reflection time as your personal strategy retreat.

2. Recognize Your Dependencies

The term “stakeholders” is now commonplace in business strategy. While we usually don’t think of the people in our personal relationships as our stakeholders, maybe we should – because it is very apt.

In business, not all stakeholders are equal. Some are “key”, and clearly identifying and nurturing these can have a huge effect on the success of a business. The same is true in our personal lives.

To achieve a strategic life Helen has focused on her key dependencies. “It’s a must,” she says, “because you can get dragged from pillar to post if you don’t.”

Who are they?  “It’s the family, the business and then there’s a hierarchy of friends. They’re not all tight though. I may reach out to them but if this isn’t reciprocated, I’m willing to let those relationships go. I simply have other priorities.” Helen’s metrics around personal relationships include how she feels when she spends time with each person.

A periodic “stakeholder analysis” of your relationships can be refreshing.

3. Plan

Part of being strategic in business is to plan – short-term and long-term. The same is true in our personal lives.

Alice is always, as the saying goes, “open for business.” You wouldn’t say that she lives a strategic life. She’s a responder not a planner. At work she loves to help and gets pulled in all directions. The result is that her surroundings control her. As one of her colleagues put it, “it’s as though she has a sign on his forehead that says, ‘please disturb me’.”

Mark, in contrast, leads a strategic life as he’s a great list maker. He has children at school and his goal setting works on a 10-week term. He also plans each week and has a list of things to do each day.

But he’s also aware that lists alone aren’t the answer, just as in business there’s a difference between an operational plan and a strategic plan. “Just writing lists can get you into the weeds and you end up doing the same stuff,” he says. “You have to elevate your thinking on a regular basis.”

Remember, if you don’t have a list, you’re an item on someone else’s list.

4. Maintain Focus

I recently shared an article with Janice on the six rules for happiness. I thought it was pretty good and highly pertinent to her. A few days later I asked her what she thought of it. She replied, “yeah, I saw it and I set it aside to read later. But I just haven’t got back to it.”

Janice admits that she finds it hard to maintain focus. She’s an extrovert by her own admission and struggles to think strategically. She says, “I’m way too accessible at work. I need to get away from people to focus.” Otherwise, she points out “I’ll just get sucked into all sorts of things.”

She also points out that “everyone battles with their devices.” She admitted to spending three to four hours a week on Instagram. She’s creating a strategic life by having better focus. “But when I thought about it, I concluded it was just rubbish. I’ve deleted it and I’ve now turned my Instagram time into genuine useful reading.”

To become strategic, put away the distractions and allow yourself time to think.

5. Be Ready to Alter Course

Business is exhorted to engage in continuous improvement. This is required to keep up with change – change in the business environment, change in priorities and different trends. That’s not so different from your personal life.

Luke points out that on the surface there’s a contradiction between planning and being ready to alter course. “Some people say you can’t plan because things might change. That’s a cop-out. The fact is a plan gives you a base from which to change.” Luke’s point is that leading a strategic life requires preparing for eventualities. Without a plan, he says, “you’re just a dumb sucker.” 

Luke is also careful to avoid FOMO (the fear of missing out) from controlling his behavior. He explains how FOMO has some people constantly altering their course. “I find that if you have a central goal or driving direction it helps to identify what’s non-core and merely a distraction. You can’t do everything,” he says.

There’s a fine line between stubbornly sticking to your plan and being easily distracted. But with a clear purpose you can walk it to become strategic.

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While, certainly, you’re different from an organization, you can learn a lot from some of the principles in business strategy to create a strategic life. Try applying them. This puts you in a better position to control events rather than have them control you. That leads to greater success and more happiness.

About the author

Graham Kenny, CEO of Strategic Factors, is a recognized expert in strategy and performance measurement who helps managers, executives, and boards create successful organizations in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. He is a regular author in the Harvard Business Review and has been a professor of management in universities in the U.S., and Canada. You can connect to or follow him on LinkedIn.