Have you ever started off the New Year by making grand new promises to yourself? You list out your new goals (and re-list some old ones). You get excited about what you'll accomplish. You think about how great your life will be when you get all those things done.
And then sometime in December, you look back and wonder where all the time went?
You certainly kept busy. You got a lot done. But somehow the stuff you didn't get done was the stuff that really mattered. The stuff you completed just wasn't as important. You did a good job of maintaining the status quo, but you failed to get ahead. This year turned out very much like the year before... and the year before that.
Where did you go wrong?
Setting the Right Goals
One possibility is that you set lame goals. It's very common to set goals that come from social conditioning instead of setting goals we really care about. For example, maybe you set a goal to make a certain amount of money, but deep down you just don't care that much about money. If you'd set a goal you really cared about instead, you might have accomplished it by now.
If you set a goal, and you aren't as enthusiastic about that goal as a child asking for a piece of candy, your goal is probably pointless and uninspiring. You think you want it. You tell yourself you should want it. Intellectually you think it would be great to have it. But deep down it just doesn't connect. You simply don't care... not really. I know it's hard, but you need to dump these types of goals. Otherwise you're trying to climb a ladder that's leaning against the wrong building. You're not being authentic.
Good goals stir you emotionally. They scare you. They push you to grow. They require you to face your fears. They practically dare you to chase them down. They expose your inadequacies. The best goals are those which make you think, "Damn, it would be awesome to achieve that! But I'm really not sure if I can pull this off..."
One of the goals I set at the beginning of this year was to become a raw foodist. I've been a vegan since 1997, and I wanted to make the transition to a 100% raw diet. This was a goal that inspired me. It also scared me because I didn't know how I'd pull it off. I successfully achieved it though. It was hard to adapt to this way of eating, but fortunately it's very easy to maintain. I've been eating 100% raw for most of the year now.
You don't need to set a ton of different goals. Fewer is better. It's better to achieve one big goal than to set 20 goals and fail to achieve any of them. Setting too many simultaneous goals will just dilute your focus.
A goal is a decision. If you set lots of goals at the same time, you haven't made any real decisions. You're just playing the field, hoping you'll find the time to squeeze everything in. But there's no commitment. What you have is a quagmire of potential distractions. One goal is clarity. Ten goals is confusion.
If you want to succeed in achieving your goals, pick just one or two at a time, and stick with them until they're complete. You can also set new goals afterwards.
Try limiting yourself to one major personal goal and one major professional goal at a time. Stick with these priorities until they're 100% complete. You'll achieve your goals much more quickly if you do this.
One of the reasons I had such a great 2008 was that I was very clear about my primary goals. Going raw was my #1 personal goal. Finishing my book was my #1 professional goal.
While these goals were on my plate, I worked hard on them. They never slid under the radar. I couldn't forget about them or ignore them. And since these were goals I really desired, I was inspired to take a lot of action.
If you have a goal that's too big to stick with until it's 100% complete, break it down into phases. For example, I broke my book project into different phases like creating the outline, writing the first draft, editing the book, and then promoting the book after it was released. That way I could work on other projects between phases to fit the schedules of others I worked with.
When you think about your New Year's goals, try setting just one personal and one professional goal. Then commit to sticking with them until you've achieved them. If you aren't willing to do that, then you're just playing games with yourself. If the goals are really important to you, then you should get them done quickly and directly by minimizing distractions and obstacles.
Focus Focus Focus
If you set strong, worthy goals, they'll probably require tremendous focus. If you allow all sorts of minor projects and tasks to creep onto your plate, you'll find yourself feeling pretty lousy around December.
When you focus on a goal, this means you must prevent yourself from focusing on anything that isn't part of that goal. So get used to saying NO — a lot!
When I'm working on an important goal, I imagine I have a shield up that deflects anything that isn't relevant to that goal. I often let other parts of my life slide, at least to the degree they can handle some sliding.
Life is filled with potential distractions. If you try to keep on top of everything, you'll fail to keep on top of what's most important. You'll soon find yourself drowning in pointless tasks and not getting the important stuff done at all. Your goals will never become reality.
When I'm working on an important goal, many phone calls go unanswered, and long emails go unread. Why? Although these tasks may seem important, they aren't nearly as important to me as the goals I'm working on. So I simply blow them off. I don't have time to attend to all these things and stay focused on my goals at the same time. I have to triage one or the other. I chose to become a published author and a raw foodist this year, and the price was that I blew off a lot of email that I considered unimportant. I think that's a pretty good price.
If you're working on minor tasks and projects instead of your primary goal, then on some level, you're procrastinating. Ask yourself if those minor tasks are so important as to justify putting off the achievement of your goal? Do you really need to take that phone call or answer that email? Or would you rather be one step closer to your goal?
If you aren't working on your most important goal, how can you even claim to be working?
This hidden procrastination is just one step away from full-blown procrastination, where you actively disengage from doing any seemingly productive work and just mess around instead. You're actually better off taking time off to mess around because then you can't kid yourself that you're working. If you need a break, take a break. There's nothing wrong with that. But when you want to be working, work on your goals. Don't get mired in distractions that only seem like work.
If you aren't working on your goals, you aren't working. You're just wasting time.
Put in the Time
Many goals can be achieved if you simply put in the time. If your goal isn't physically impossible, chances are good that you'll eventually achieve it. You may have a lot to learn, but there's nothing stopping you from learning what you need to learn. Just put in the time, persist, and you'll get there.
For my goal of becoming a raw foodist, most of my time went into education and experimentation. I spent a lot of time reading books and talking to successful raw foodists. I tried lots of different recipes over a period of months to learn what worked best for me. There was no getting around this. I had to invest hundreds of hours to reach my personal tipping point for long-term success. After that the goal was achieved, and I was able to enjoy the benefits day after day.
For my goal of writing a book, most of my time went into thinking — before I even started writing. Figuring out what kind of book to write took longer than the writing itself. Again, this required hundreds of hours of effort. I actually achieved the tipping point before I started writing the book. Planning the book was incredibly challenging. Writing it was fairly easy.
How many goals have you failed to achieve because you didn't put in the time?
If you throw 200 hours at your #1 goal, could you make a serious dent in it? Very likely you could. Even if you don't know how to achieve the goal, 200 hours of education would take you pretty far. "I don't know how" is a nonsense excuse when there are so many educational resources available these days.
Chunk it Down
If you get clear on your #1 goal, and you let the distractions slide for a bit, then what stops you from putting in the time?
Most likely it's a lack of clarity about what to do next. When you stare at a big goal, it's easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed. This encourages you to procrastinate.
Realize that some feelings of stress are quite normal on a big project. When you're not working, the stress feels negative. But when you're working steadily, mild stress transforms into positive focus. So if you feel a little stress at first, don't worry about it. It will soon become your ally. If you see the stress as something to be avoided, you'll simply fall into the trap of perfectionism.
To achieve a big goal, chunk it down into smaller steps. Don't worry about breaking down the entire project into tiny pieces. Just break off a piece from the front edge. Chunk it down until it's small enough that you have enough clarity to start working on it. Then get to work.
When you've completed all the small pieces in front of you, break off another piece from the new front edge of the project, and chunk it down some more. Then get back to work.
If you have goal-related actions you can complete, then go do them first. Don't worry about chunking down the rest of the project until you need to do so. Don't use over-planning as a means of procrastination.
Very often you'll find that once you get into a good flow of action, the chunking-down takes care of itself. One action flows smoothly into the next. Just get started on any piece of the project, and you'll soon build the momentum to keep going.
It's so easy to make excuses for not working on a big goal. I don't have the clarity I'd like. I'm not as motivated as I should be. I'll just get these little things off my plate first. If you succumb to such excuses, your goal will take 10x longer to achieve — if you achieve it at all.
All of those excuses will go away if you just say "screw it" and get to work anyway. Start off by tackling some small piece of your goal, and you'll be too busy to hear the excuses. Drown them out with action.
Think of it like this. If you love to drive much faster than the legal speed limit, a part of your consciousness will be preoccupied with the possibility that you may get a speeding ticket. That's always a risk. So while you're driving, part of your mind is preoccupied with looking out for Highway Patrol officers. Even if you aren't consciously aware of this, your subconscious mind will tackle it for you. This means that part of your attention is elsewhere.
However, if you don't speed when you drive, then you needn't worry about getting a speeding ticket. Consequently, the part of your mind that was obsessed with this possibility is free to think about something else. Your attention is no longer divided.
Similarly, when you work on non-priority tasks, your attention is always split. Part of your mind is thinking about what you're doing, and another part is worrying about what you should be doing instead. You're splintering (i.e. lowering) your consciousness when you do this. You aren't fully present.
On the other hand, when you work on one of your key goals, your mind is made whole again. Distracting thoughts normally fade within the first 15 minutes, and now you're 100% focused on the important task at hand. And afterwards you feel great for making progress toward your goal.
Notice that when you work on something that's really important to you, once you get past the first 15 minutes or so, you normally feel wonderful. You feel relaxed and productive. You also feel very present.
However, when you work on unimportant tasks and put off the big ones, you can't consistently reach this state. You feel more stressed and distracted. There's this subtle nagging voice telling you, "This isn't what you need to be doing right now." And it just won't shut up. This leads you to try to drown it with even more distraction and pointless entertainment that leaves you feeling empty. This can lead to a cycle of addiction where you're constantly drugging yourself with daily distractions to avoid feeling so unsettled. You can never cure the problem with this strategy though.
The solution is that you have to start living up to your potential. No more excuses. Set those big goals, and go after them with gusto. This isn't just the right way to live. It's also the way that feels best.
It feels great to look back on a year knowing that you achieved your biggest goals. Who cares if you didn't return every phone call or answer every email? Yes, some people will be bothered by that. So let them be bothered. They probably shouldn't be wasting time calling and emailing you about trivialities anyway. Surely they have more important things to do with their lives as well. :)