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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