How to Live a Better Life: Serendipity and the Accidental Tourist

Many of us live a life where there is too much going on in too little time; it happens at work, at home, and any other shred of life that’s left. But like many things, it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are a least four ways to make a change.

One element that does make life better is serendipity, but it doesn’t run on a schedule. Since success in business increasingly depends on it – as noted by the Economist – it makes smart sense to figure out how to cultivate serendipity. You can begin free serendipity to happen by understanding that serendipity does not calendar time in a diary that is already packed full. Serendipity to people with overjammed lives is akin to a stealth fighter; you don’t see it coming, and it’s gone before you knew it was here.

There can be a transaction “high” from juggling a zillion balls in the air without having them drop. Executive road warriors know the sport of figuring out flights to take you from point A to point B, particularly when your flight cancels and game is on to avoid being stranded at the airport. I know individuals whose goal in their personal life is to relentlessly tick off items from their to-do list. Face it; we’ve all been there are one time or another. For those on that high, dump it. It’s seldom a solid strategy to be more effective or even more efficient.

So here are four simple (not necessarily easy, just simple) things you can do that have big impact to a better life and by letting serendipity work:

  • Show up early. Ed Tufte offers this suggestion as a tip for presenters (“Show up early: something good is bound to happen” ) and I find it extends to just about any occasion. Worst case for showing up early is that you have some spare time to use but with iPhone, current book I’m reading, or just time to doodle ideas, that time for me is never wasted. The flip side is I’ve met more interesting people by coming early, or been able to help out and get to know people I never would have met. Showing up early means that I tend to stay relaxed and not frazzled.
  • Be accurate and conservative in your schedule. Many have become slaves to Outlook calendars and when you book a 10 AM meeting across campus right after your 9 AM meeting that ends at 9:59 AM you have zero chance of being timely. Any calendaring program lets you book in increments of 5 -15 minutes; rather than ending at 10 AM have the meeting end at 9:50 AM so you can get to the next meeting on a timely basis. Rather than being overly aggressive in your calendaring, be conservative. Schedule your meetings in 45 or 50 minute increments. Who do you know who complains about getting out of a meeting early and being given the gift of some free time?
  • Put cushion in your schedule. Many times life feels like you’re the air traffic controller at O’Hare on the busiest day of the flight year. You can change that though, by putting some simple buffer in you schedule. For example, schedule a couple of blocks of 15 minutes (one in the morning, one in the evening) to get away from your desk and walk around, perhaps grabbing an apple from the deli down the street or simply taking a mindless walk. That downtime will help to clear your head, and like rebooting a computer (heck, even a Mac needs to be rebooted every few weeks) it will give you fresh and better perspective. One EVP executive coaching client credits this one simple step as worth the cost of the entire coaching engagement since he’s now running ahead of things and has some time to think about what to do next rather than simply reacting and continually playing catch-up.
  • Warm up and warm down from extended time out of office and or vacation. Schedule the day before you take off for vacation or an extended out of town trip as if you weren’t planning to be in the office (no meetings, no project deliverables, etc.). Stuff will come up – and the buffer of the day means you can handle it. When returning from vacation of a week or more avoid putting any meetings on your calendar. If you usually come homeward bound on Sunday, try coming home on Saturday instead so you can wind down before hitting the office on Monday. If you’re coming back midweek from extended vacation, keep your return day open to catch up.

When you do all these simple acts you create greater opportunity to be reflective, and to be open and available for opportunities that arise. When you’re heads down and scurrying, you simply miss a lot of stuff. When you’re heads up, mindful of what you need to do and how you need to do it, and not careening from one meeting to another serendipity shows up.

All of this stuff around taking care of yourself and cultivating serendipity came to mind as my son and I went up to the Oregon Shakespearean Festival box office this Monday night to pick up tickets for the performance that same night. One minor problem; the box office was dark, and so was everything else at the festival in Ashland, Oregon. Turns out those Monday tickets I had booked were actually for Tuesday night. And since I’d left my Wednesday wide open for catch-up at the office, we could stay another day – not disappoint my 8 year old son – and drive home to San Francisco Wednesday. Instead of driving home on Tuesday we’ll play tourist in Ashland, getting more from our trip than I thought we’d ever receive.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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