Protect Your Dreams From Contamination

wilting flower

Would you rather vacation in Rome, or get your closet organized?  Quit your job and make a living doing what you love, or take back your library books a week early?

Each of us spends a full twenty-four hours, every day, doing something.  Each of the hundreds of actions you take in a day supposedly brings you closer to something you want.  You get groceries because you want to be able to make supper later.  You sleep because you want to be well rested.

We spend much of our time on the simple everyday tasks required to keep our life afloat, such as working to pay the bills, tidying up, organizing, fixing, shopping.  Maintenance of all sorts.

But most of us also spend some time working towards grander outcomes: traveling to exotic countries, building a business or a dream career, buying a sailboat or mastering some skill or craft.  Some people are more focused on these things than others, but we all have dreams.

Here’s a negative pattern I’ve observed in myself that you can probably identify with, along with a way to stop it dead in its tracks.

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the dozens of demands on our time.  Often, if a day hasn’t been going like I planned, either I’ve screwed something up, or I’ve left too many to-do items at the end of the day, it can be discouraging.  I sometimes just throw up my hands and do whichever item I feel like doing most.  In most cases, it is the big-ticket items, the ones my dreams really depend on, that get pushed back.  There is a disheartening tendency to concede to the easier, less emotionally invested items, like tidying up or organizing something.  Those tasks don’t really bring my dreams any closer, but at least they’re one step better than just collapsing into a heap on the floor.

This aversion to the really, really important tasks when I’m not already on a roll could almost be described as a phobia.  It’s like I don’t want to taint my precious dreams by touching them with my stale, disappointment-soiled hands.  I just want to do something tonight so I don’t feel totally defeated.

So usually whatever I end up doing is not the most productive choice, and I go to bed vaguely disappointed.  When I wake up there is often still a hint of that disappointment left.  Sometimes it begins to grow on me, and it saps my enthusiasm for the next day.  I push back the hairier tasks again.  Five days later, I’ve touched none of them, and they’re even more intimidating now.

Eventually, I begin to doubt if my dreams are going to happen at all.  Sometimes it leads to a whole week of haphazard, arbitrary work, where I’m always busy but the really important things aren’t getting done.  The carpet gets vacuumed, and a book might get read, but I am no closer to what I actually want in life.  By the end of the week I may have given up on making a to-do list at all.  Have you ever let the whole week more or less slide, hoping to catch up on the weekend?  I have.  A lot.

In fact, I’ve let years of my life go by this way.  I could be working on something I truly love, and then I’d hit a snag.  I’d get frustrated, then avoid it for the rest of the day.  I just wouldn’t want to be frustrated anymore, so I wouldn’t touch it.  There’s always later.  Perhaps if a better mood came along I’d be willing to tackle it.

But most of the time I would never really get back to it.  Not with the same level of enthusiasm, anyway.  What was once an exciting task has now become a painful task, and I’d be much more likely to dive headlong into some fresh, unspoiled endeavor than to pick up one whose last session was painful or difficult.  I’ve still got notebooks and binders full of half-started projects and plans.

Dreams die this way.  Are you, or do you know somebody who is always starting big and wonderful things but never finishing them?  Starting something is easy because the enthusiasm is there, but as soon as defeat or doubt enters the picture, the idea becomes unattractive.

I am convinced most lives eventually settle into complacency by means of this phenomenon.  The big things people really really want soon become contaminated with negativity and doubt, and they begin to rationalize why they never happened.

“I’m too busy for that right now.”

“I can’t make enough money to do that.”

“Life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to.”

Well, at least the laundry is done.

I don’t think any of these are good reasons.  I doubt the people who say them think so either, if they are being honest.  But they aren’t being honest, they are just consoling themselves for resigning to a life that doesn’t satisfy them.

Often it really doesn’t take much work to get past the snag, maybe just twenty minutes of reading a help file, or a fifteen minute brainstorming session to devise a new approach.  But sometimes the initial roadblock is so disappointing that we don’t ever want to look at it again.  The more time that passes before getting back to it, the more the aversion mounts, and the more unlikely it is that it will ever become reality.  The pain of a dying dream is no joke, it can embitter and break people.

I’ve got a new way of responding to that feeling of doubt, before it begins to snowball.

First, whenever I notice that averse feeling to working on a goal or a dream, I stop.  Stop clicking, stop thinking, stop pacing, stop biting my lip, whatever, I just stop.  Then I ask — out loud if I’m alone — the Big Question:

“Ok, given my dreams and goals in life, what is honestly, honestly the smartest way to spend my next 30 minutes?”

The answer will usually come right away.  If it doesn’t, I look at my to-do list or list of goals, and it’s clear.  The most important thing will jump out.  Often it is so obvious because it’s exactly what I’ve been avoiding.

Then I look at the time, and resolve to spend the next thirty minutes on it.  I set a timer.  It does not matter how far I get, all that’s important is that 100% of the time was spent climbing directly toward a major goal in my life.

The key is the decision to be honest about it.  The mind is tricky; it rationalizes.  If your mind is anything like mine, it will initially tell you to do something useful, but not crucial.  It too recognizes the fear of doing a not-so-great job when the task is truly important to you, especially if it’s a difficult one.  Simply demanding an honest answer from yourself will short-circuit any sneaky compromises.

What if I have no list of dreams or goals?

If you don’t have a list of goals, then there’s your answer.  Make one.  What do you really want in life?  Write down everything that comes to mind.  Do not hesitate, do not censor yourself.  Don’t leave anything out just because it’s expensive, scary, or complicated.  This is not a commitment, just an open declaration of what you want to happen in your life. When you notice yourself hesitating at an item, write down your excuse on a separate sheet of paper.

“It would take too long.”

“It’s too risky, I might lose what I have.”

“My friends would think I’ve lost it.”

“My wife won’t let me.”

Above your list of excuses, you may want to write “Excuses” or “Very Good Reasons For Why I Have Compromised My Life,” or something else that will snap you out of excuse mode.

There is no purpose to life other than what’s on your list of goals. If you think you have a purpose that isn’t on the list, put it on the list. Do you want to travel?  Work for yourself?  Raise respectful, happy kids?

What on your list strikes you as most important right now?  If no one item jumps out, pick one.  Close your eyes and picture its realization.  Picture what is happening the day you cross it off the list.  Where are you?  Who else is there and what are they doing? What do you see, hear, and feel?  Really, get into the details of it: the sound of the Mediterranean surf, lapping at edge of your boat; the six-figure statement from your checking account; the reverent, glowing smiles of your grown kids.

It is these details that will keep you on track.  Don’t let your dreams be reduced to a line on a page.  Just let that line be a reminder.  If you need inspiration, close your eyes and get acquainted with the details again.

Then ask the Big Question.

You can ask yourself the Question any time you feel like you’re not being productive.  Once you identify the best use of your time, the next action is just to jump right into it.  Take the first step before the doubt monster gets there first.  Jump on it with physical action, and keep on it for thirty minutes.

It’s never going to be something huge.  No matter how big the goal, the steps are always single actions you can do in the moment.  Pick up the phone and start making calls.  Put your pen on the paper and brainstorm your new project.  Lace up your runners and get your three miles in.

Thirty minutes is usually enough to get you sailing.  Momentum is everything, so keep the afterburners on for a good half hour, and you probably won’t feel like stopping.  You sure won’t feel like doing laundry.

Tonight I had a great workout and took care of some other things, but I got wrapped up in an online forum discussion and suddenly it’s 90 minutes closer to bedtime that I wanted it to be.  Some list items are definitely not going to happen.

So I asked the all-important question.

And the answer was, “Write this post.”

Photo by Tourist on Earth

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Nadia - Happy Lotus March 22, 2009 at 11:29 am

Hi David,

Here in the States everyone, for the most part, is really scared about what is happening with the economy. Everywhere I go, people are just so full of negativity that I think my brain is becoming contaminated with their negativity! It is hard being an optimist (the eternal variety) when everyone else is so down. So thank you for reminding me to keep believing in my dreams and to just be focused on them.

David March 23, 2009 at 7:47 am

Yes, so often I’ve let an important, long-term goal flounder because of something short-term: a little setback or a bad experience. Then my mind associates the goal with those bad emotions, and it becomes some ugly monster I don’t want to deal with. Negativity is contagious, but I think its opposite is moreso.

Kim March 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

Lovely post, David!
I’m glad that you’ve introduced me to your Raptitude project. This is an excellent step towards building on your dreams.
Speaking of which, this post was very apropos for me this morning as building on one of my dreams requires my focus to be fixed on finishing two very important projects for my Horticulture courses. It’s easy to become distracted and discouraged but often I find that letting my task sit idle for a few minutes (upon feeling said discouragement) while I regroup and recharge with various forms of creative meditation is the best course of action.
Sometimes rocking out for a few minutes with a hula hoop is all I need to renew the inspiration and sometimes it isn’t.
The bottom line is not to give up on the things that matter but to know when and how you need to change or improve the attitude that is keeping you from feeling inspired.
That said, I need to get back to building my ideal orchid hot house so that I can perhaps be the director of a botanical garden someday. ;)

meusus March 23, 2009 at 9:54 pm

David, not just in this article but in all, I appreciate your transparency, your reflective expression. Some things need to be said–by us to ourselves–and you certainly hit the mark here.

I have sooo many dreams, both large and small, that have gone unrealized. Whether it be reading a particular book, learning to play the piano or the guitar, following my career passion (as opposed to settling for rather mundane job security), or even doing the unthinkable–facing and overcoming my own weaknesses– they’ve all gone undone. And you are so right: it’s easy to become overwhelmed and/or discouraged by the enormity of some of these endeavors–especially after many a repeated false start–and to simply let years slip by while accomplishing none of them. There is always Tomorrow, after all.

Damn that Tomorrow.

So what I like about your prescription is it takes that fear-full, nagging goal, wipes out the Future component, and brings it into the Now in the form of a very manageable, doable–and yea, even rewarding–chunk. And that’s certainly a good start.

Thank you.

Dawn March 24, 2009 at 6:14 am

I was raised by a negative person…Married to one, and seem to attract more than my fair share…BUT I am NOT a negative person….

I am 39 years old…and have just decided what I would like to persue as a career…lol. Sometimes things come when you least expect them.

David March 24, 2009 at 6:58 am

@Dawn — Congratulations for staying positive amidst not-so-positive people. Some people succumb to the attitudes of those around them. I’m also just now discovering how I want to make a living, and I was already on my second career.

@meusus — I like how you articulated that: “wipes out the Future component, and brings it into the Now”… It’s always been the imaginary future component that has made my dreams so scary. It made them impossible because the future can’t be dealt with. All you ever have to do is some little action right now.

@Kim — Oh, Kim, I was so happy to share this with you. Without your encouragement I would not be where I am and there would certainly be no Raptitude. You saw something in me I didn’t see. I am so lucky to know you. Keep rocking the hula hoop, you’re a star!

Kim March 24, 2009 at 12:12 pm

David, I want you to know that I believe what you said to me was the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid.
That and it made me cry.
I am pretty lucky to have you in my life too, mon ami.
Keep rocking the blog and don’t forget your music…your fingers can sing just as well as Chris Cornell.

Angela July 9, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Hey that,s a great idea , to stop and ask yourself that 30 minute question.Thank you for sharing the idea with us , I am sure if I ask myself the 30 minute question and do it daily my
Dreams will be achieved and I won’t find myself beating myself up for not having achieved anything that day.

Thanks

mikencue September 2, 2009 at 10:56 am

Bravo, I think this is a brilliant idea

Izzen November 6, 2009 at 11:39 am

I just want to hug you. Finding this site… Agh, I am so happy right now!

David November 6, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Aw, that’s a nice comment to wake up to. Thanks.

sandeep March 20, 2010 at 9:32 am

I’m becoming a great fan of ours..!! I love many of your posts.. many of them made many things clear to me… u really helped me to think clearly… i want to thank u for all the time and effort u put into writing such insightful posts..!!

David March 20, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Thanks sandeep. I love when people dig up these old posts and comment

jeanie July 11, 2010 at 1:58 am

You are amazing. A rapturous combination of my asskicker Karol Gajda and soul string plucker Elizabeth Gilbert.

Love the facility with words & ability to speak my own feelings/thoughts. How did you come by these skills? 10000 hours as …Malcolm Gladwell? Says?

David July 13, 2010 at 9:01 am

Thanks Jeanie. I just read a lot and think a lot and write a lot. Combined, maybe I’m getting on to 10,000 hours…. haven’t been counting. :)

Nesbitt December 25, 2011 at 1:08 am

“There is always Tomorrow, after all.”

Y’know, I’ll bet that’s just what President Kennedy was thinking just as his motorcade arrived at Dealey Plaza…

Seriously, it’s frightening how “everyday living” can sneak up on you and before you know it rob you of the reason *why* you’re living.

That being said, it’s important to have a support system in place for those times when the rocket inevitably blows up on the launch pad, or especially if it misfires a lot (“Maybe I’m *really* not cut out for of such and such, or am I just repeating mistakes which *I* cannot see but which a friend might spot?”) But suppose you’re an introvert or social phobic who doesn’t have a large social circle?

I totally hate to recommend social networking sites (*especially* that royalty of precious-time-wasters, F***b**k) but if a real-world confidant isn’t available, the members of such networks might be the best alternative you can come up with, especially if said network caters to folks in your situation (and especially if you don’t let it become a time sink!). Quality of such networks can vary wildly; choose carefully and don’t be afraid to go elsewhere if need be.

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