What are you really trying to do?

Teju Adeyinka
3 min readJul 4, 2023


Hot air balloons over Teotihuacán

Setting an intention or purpose when starting anything is, by now, commonplace advice. We often associate establishing a “why” with big, ambitious endeavors like starting a company, getting on a fitness journey, changing the world, or setting annual goals. However, setting intentions for even the smallest tasks can provide clarity that makes us more effective and brings meaning to our work. This is particularly important when your work requires navigating all kinds of ambiguity.

Work can often feel like repeatedly going through the motions — checking off to-do lists, talking to people, doing research, starting yet another project, etc. Trudging through these moments can cause us to miss the forest for trees and leave us feeling overwhelmed and uninspired. Personally, I’ve found that asking myself, “What am I really trying to do here?” or “What do I want from this?” is a great way to take a step back and recalibrate. Doing this has saved me hours of effort that would have been meaningless or insufficient to make a valuable dent in the problem at hand.

In establishing a purpose, it is essential to go beyond the surface-level response of “because it was assigned to me” and insist on an honest answer for why you’re spending your time on something. Your answer could be something like, “it’ll help me…build trust with Lagbaja because I’ll be working with them long-term, and I need them to have my back”, “…get some visibility for my work from my skip, so I don’t get overlooked for a promotion”, “…get Tamedo’s eyes on this early because they’ll have the most pushback”, and so on. Whatever you determine it to be, having a clear why for each task provides a North Star that helps you determine:

  • If to commit any time and effort to the task in the first place. Or if it’s something to delegate, postpone, or simply discard. Some efforts aren’t worth investing in, and nothing makes that more evident to you than trying to answer the “what am I trying to get out of this?” question.
  • How much time and effort to commit to the task. Not all tasks are created equal, and depending on the answer to your question and what is required to achieve it, a rough draft that takes 30 minutes might be all you need. Shreyas Doshi’s LNO framework provides some practical insight into timeboxing tasks based on their levels of impact.
  • The definition of success. Knowing why you’re doing each thing you do helps you determine if you’re going in the right direction and also enables you to see when you’ve gotten there.
  • How to get other people to buy into the idea of what you want them to do? E.g., If you need someone else’s input, what do you tell them to sell them on the idea? What format must the task be in — what language, structure, and level of detail is required?

If you ever find yourself stuck in the weeds, taking a breath to ask, “What am I really trying to do here?” can provide the clarity you need to move forward. Answering the question genuinely can provide a fresh perspective of your actual constraints and levers and help you see where you’re overcomplicating the problems, allowing you to make meaningful progress.

As a forcing function for being more intentional, I start my week by answering a short list of questions to answer the overarching “What am I really trying to do this week?” question. I ask:

  • What are the most Important Things to get done (and why)? [Max 3]
  • Blockers & Worries?
  • What’s on my mind? [To cover anything I haven’t already]
  • What am I learning?

This list of questions & the answers to them becomes the foundation for my daily to-do list during the work week. When I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time on something, weighing it against this list helps me decide how to move forward.

While unexpected events may occur that require me to re-prioritize, having this base allows me to approach work with clarity about what my efforts should ladder up to and helps me measure success.

Lagbaja & Tamedo: Yoruba placeholder names. Similar to John & Jane Doe.