As I’ve mentioned before, there is an entire multi-million dollar industry built upon getting organised, being productive and achieving your goals. Just the the fact that there are so many different courses, applications and seminars tells us one thing – people are still not achieving their goals.
I don’t think the issue is the tools we have at our disposal but the goals we try and accomplish with those tools. After all we all enough computing power in our pockets in the form of smartphones to plan and execute a space mission, so it should be more than enough to help us organise and achieve our personal goals.
I think the real problems lays in the fact that we set ourselves goals that are either unachievable or that have an outcome that is not controlled by us. The philosopher Epictetus gave us a way to become invincible:
You can be invincible if you do not enter into any contest in which victory is not up to you
While this may appear inherently pessimistic, I hope to show that it can be anything but.
Never Fail Again
Wouldn’t it be amazing to never fail again? They say that we learn from our mistakes, but that doesn’t have to mean that we have to fail in reaching our goals.
There are two methods which can guarantee that you will never fail.
The first is simply to completely change the way you set your goals. You need to set internal goals instead of external goals. What does this actually mean?
It all goes back to what we can and cannot control. I’ve deal with this in my essay on “How To Carpe Diem” but it’s worth reiterating it here as it’s crucial to the way I approach everything.
Everything falls into three categories:
Things we can fully control
Things we can partially control
Things we cannot control.
The only things that we can fully control are our thoughts and our actions (and even those, at times, can be incredibly difficult to control). Everything else is, at best, partially controllable or else fully uncontrollable. Some things may give the illusion of being controllable but they are actually not.
[UPDATE: For a further, more in-depth discussion on control, read my aptly named essay "On Control"]
Let me give you an example in regards to this website.
External goals for AndBeThere.com
Double the traffic in 2014
triple the revenue in 2014
I want x amount of Facebook Fans
An internal goal for AndBeThere.com
- I want to publish at least two quality essays a week, every week of the year.
I think anyone can instantly see the difference between these two goals. I am obviously not able to fully control the amount of visitors, the amount of revenue generated by this website or how many people decide to “like” my Facebook page and so I could well fail in these goals. One could also make the point that perhaps these goals are also not worthy of one’s attention in the first place because they don’t truly matter.
The goal of publishing at least two quality essays a week, however, is well within my control. Granted, it may take a lot of effort and self-discipline, but I am ultimately in control.
So how does this link in with the way we should set our goals?
It’s simple, we should only set our goals based on what we can fully control, namely our thoughts and our actions. I call this setting internal goals because it’s all about you.
The problem with setting external goals based on things that you cannot control is that you might do everything right and you are likely to still not reach your goal thus setting yourself up for a potential failure and there is very little you can do about it.
For most people this clearly means a large change in the way they view their life. The switch from “I want to win this race” to “I want to do the best I can” appears deceptively simple. In reality, it’s perhaps one of the hardest things you can do. It requires constant self examination and it will be years before you think like this is a natural manner. Do not be discouraged by the time it takes, that in itself requires a shift in your perspective of time. I’ve written about how you should think in higher time frames and also how to completely change the way you think about time.
I promise you that once you do start making this change in the way you think you will start to notice how absurd we are as a society in the way we set goals and plan ahead. We create forecasts for things that are wildly outside of our control and use all kinds of mathematical and scientific reasoning to try and back it up. Don’t buy into it. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, no matter what they tell you.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
I find that often people ask me if this doesn’t mean that one will become wonderfully under ambitious and perhaps in the traditional way of looking at things it may well appear that way. I think it’s important to remember that we should aim to achieve things that are meaningful and not just try to impress other people by the job title we have or the amount of things we have managed to collect.
Ironically, you might find that you start achieving some of the external goals that you had once set yourself. By not focussing on making money but just doing the best you can in your life’s work, you might just realise that you have ended up rich! Another example is the student who instead of studying to pass an exam, studies to learn the subject as well as he possibly can and then finds that as a byproduct he scores highly in his exam paper.
Life is strange like that, when you try really hard to get something it appears impossible to reach but as soon as you stop trying, it magically floats your way. This is probably due to the fact that you start concentrating on the things that truly matter and forget about the things that don’t.
Of course, setting internal goals does not guarantee that you will achieve what you want to achieve. After all, we, as a species, are notoriously lazy, badly disciplined and prone to distractions. This is where the second of the two methods steps in and makes sure that we never fail.
Break it down
Breaking long term goals or projects into small steps is not a new strategy. In fact, it’s advice that has been regurgitated ad nauseum in almost all popular lifestyle magazines. The only problem that I have with this advice, is that it doesn’t go quite far enough. It’s a step in the right direction but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem of procrastination or the simple fact that some tasks appear daunting and impossible even when broken down into smaller tasks.
My approach in this matter of breaking goals is radically different and has the advantage of being incredibly simple. It is so simple that I can summarise my entire system in one sentence.
Here we go..
Break down goals into such small steps that it is impossible to fail.
That’s it. I told you it was simple.
The only problem that I have found is that people don’t take this advice literally enough. You shouldn’t just break things down into simple steps, you should ensure that you will completely these steps because they are so small and so simple.
If you flip this concept on it’s head, you come to the realisation that you are guaranteeing yourself success in everything that is under your control.
I use this system all the time. I’ve even used it to get myself motivated to write this essay. I decided I was going to write five hundred words in the first sitting and then do something else. It’s such a small task that I couldn’t possibly put it off because it can be done immediately and it doesn’t take much time.
So what’s the criteria for creating such an easy goal that it is impossible to fail to achieve it?
Well, firstly it needs to be just one step and it should be specific. “Write five hundred words of this essay” is a specific step while “Create Strategy Plan” is too obscure and vague to be effective.
To really highlight this point, let me share with you the method I use to plan and write essays for this website. I publish at least two essays a week and generally I try and work about a month ahead of schedule. I normally have something in the region of twenty essays “on the go” at any point in time. I do this because I often get stuck while writing an essay and so it’s best if I leave it alone for a few days or a week and work on something else before coming back to it.
I break up the process of writing an essay into three separate stages, each of which is further subdivided into smaller specific steps.
I pick the subject for my essay (obviously)
I immediately think of ten titles for the essay. I continue continue to think about the title through the creation of the essays. A good title is important.
I create a MindMap off all my existing ideas on the subject and of points I want to mention. This often sparks new ideas or allows me to see existing connections between points that I missed.
I do my research:
I use Google to create a list of books on the subject
I read the top five books on that list. (Yes, I read like a dog)
I create a summary of all the points in each book
I use Pocket to save twenty articles on similar subjects that I find online and I also create a summary of all the points in each article.
I create an exhaustive list of headlines. At this point I don’t even worry about which section will come first or which will section will be a subsection of another section etc. It is just a simple list.
I write as quickly as I can. At this stage I’m not worrying about spelling, grammar. I am just getting all my ideas down in a fairly coherent manner. I write sections for those headlines I thought about in Stage One. At this stage I am still not worried about the order of the sections or if the sections should be in the essay. I am just writing. I usually end up with around two to four thousand words but that will obviously be trimmed down later on. I often realise that some sections of the essay should be a separate essay in their own right.
I start brainstorming for ideas for an image or two to include in the article. I either find this online or create it myself.
I read everything that I’ve written.
I create a skeleton structure for the essay and begin arranging and editing all the text to fit.
I look up some relevant quotes to include in my essay
I transfer the text from Google Docs to WordPress for formatting and final editing
Give it a final proof read
As you see, every bullet point is a simple step. There is no room for a misunderstanding or for procrastination. I know what I have to do and I can do it. I don’t have to think about the process, so I can get on with it.
So let’s go over the method for never failing:
Set internal goals based on what you can control (i.e. your actions and thoughts)
Break down these internal goals into the smallest, simplest steps possible so you cannot possibly fail to complete that step.
Enjoy, and remember:
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step