Are you fighting on too many fronts?

 Overcoming procrastination, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Are you fighting on too many fronts?
May 072013

When it comes to achieving goals, there is a great deal to be said for single-mindedness. Having just one priority, to which everything else is subordinated, is an efficient and effective way to accomplish whatever it is. But it’s not always practical and, in any case, we may not have a single objective that eclipses all others. I feel this issue goes to the heart of not only productivity but also fulfilment and is therefore worth examining.

It may be that you have several priorities at the same level of urgency and importance. Choosing to move forward in a variety of areas at the same time is a perfectly valid approach, which can be just as successful as the single-minded one, though it will produce a slightly different result. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and have adjusted your expectations accordingly, all is rosy. For example, if you’ve decided that this year you’re going to learn to play the saxophone, speak Portuguese and build websites, the odds are you won’t get as good at any of them as you would if you concentrated on only one of these skills. However, by pursuing all three at once, you’ll end the year with a grounding in all of them. There is no right or wrong to this; there are pros and cons to both broad-but-shallow and narrow-but-deep. All that matters is that you’re realistic in your expectations and don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

The main advantage of single-mindedness is that it carries a big and satisfying pay-off. The other huge benefit is that focusing our energy and resources along one channel keeps leakage to a minimum. I see this a bit like filling a bucket with water from a hose: point the hose into one bucket and it fills up quickly and efficiently. Try filling three buckets at the same time and inevitably some water is lost as you swing the hose from one to the other.

For me, the difficulty with juggling too many priorities is that I waste a lot of time deciding which one to pursue at any given moment, rather actually achieving anything. And, to exacerbate the problem, into this gap in my productivity rush all sorts of procrastinatory activities, such as checking my email, having a look on Facebook, wondering if I ought to clean the oven…

The solution, I suggest, for those of us who don’t have a single, overriding objective, is to allocate a period of time to each activity – a week or a month where that goal takes precedence and the others are left on hold until their turn comes. This way, the level in one bucket rises significantly before the hose moves away and far less water goes over the side.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Tumblr
Apr 302013

How are you getting on with the goals you set yourself at the beginning of the year? Are you moving steadily towards them or are you still fighting to take the first step? If you’re making progress, well done you! Keep up the good work and enjoy the process. If you’re struggling, it’s possible you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. This issue has been on my mind recently and today I thought it would be useful to have a look at self-defeating behaviour, how we can identify it and how we can transform it.

It’s a strange phenomenon that psychological mechanisms that are designed to protect us can sometimes do us far more harm than good. I’ve got a friend who hates making presentations but nevertheless is required by her boss to make them fairly regularly. The prospect of it scares her and she turns away and hides her eyes. She knows that if she prepared well in advance it would all be much less stressful but she can never make herself do that and every time it’s a last-minute panic and very little sleep the night before – which, of course, makes it hard for her to give her best performance. She feels she’s let herself down, she hates the whole thing… and so the cycle goes on. The function of fear is to keep us safe: we know the fire is hot and can burn us, the idea of putting our hands in it frightens us, so we don’t do it. Fear of fire protects us from its danger. Why is it that the only two responses we seem to have at our disposal, when the chips are down, are fight or flight? Where is the instinct to negotiate or to think things through? In the modern world, where the dangers are so much more sophisticated than they were in cave times, how come we haven’t evolved more nuanced reactions?

I have another friend who longs to find a partner and settle down but every time a man gets close to her and it looks as if things might work out, it scares her and she pushes him away. And another who hates the shape of her body and seeks solace in food. There are so many ways we can sabotage our own happiness and wellbeing.

What is the impulse to behave in a manner that brings about exactly the result we most desire to avoid? More importantly, how can we override it?

I guess it boils down to the fact that there’s something we fear even more than the situation we’re perpetuating. By asking a series of What if? questions, we can strip away the layers and get to the root of what it’s all about. It’ll take some thought, some soul-searching and some brutal honesty but it’ll be pivotal in helping you change your self-defeating habits. Once you can identify what it is you’re really afraid of, the deeper fear that’s causing you to make your own life so difficult, you can start working on overcoming it.

For example:

Q: What if you started preparing your presentation a week before it’s due?
A: I’d have no excuse if it wasn’t very good. At least by preparing in a rush I can say I didn’t have time to do my best.

Q: What if you allowed a man to get close to you?
A: He’d see the real me, he wouldn’t like the real me… he’d leave me.

Q: What if you ate healthily, looked after yourself and became the shape you want to be?
A: I’d feel sexy and I don’t know what I’d do with that.

Until you confront the primary-level fears, there’s no point in trying to change the surface behaviour. Find out what the real issue is; then you can start looking for ways of dealing with it, of allaying your base fears. Once you can slay those demons, the habits you developed to protect yourself will melt away.

A positive spin on all this would be that our self-defeating behaviour is actually a signpost, leading us to discover the fear that’s sponsoring it. Pay attention to the habits you don’t like, that sabotage you, and tune into what they’re covering up. Once you’ve named the fear at the bottom of it all, that’s already half the battle won.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Tumblr

Staying on track

 Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Staying on track
Jan 082013

How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions? I hope everything is working out well for you and 2013 is shaping up just the way you want it to. In case all is not going according to plan, though, here are a few thoughts to help you get back on track.

Achieving your goals is a process, not an event. The word ‘goal’ is widely used to mean something we want to accomplish but actually, because we associate it with a quick boot of the ball into the back of the net, it’s not the most helpful way to describe our aims. I prefer to think in terms of a journey and a destination. This way, I understand there are going to be days when I struggle and can’t get very far but I will make up for it on other days. Before, I used to think one slip spelt disaster, that I’d let myself down and might as well abandon the entire project. Now I know that, as long as I’m travelling in the right direction, the odd day – or even week – when I can’t make any progress doesn’t matter. What’s important is to keep your eyes on the destination and to feed your enthusiasm for getting there. Instead of upbraiding yourself for sitting down, remind yourself regularly how great it’ll be when you arrive. I find the carrot much more powerful than the stick.

Are the targets you’ve set yourself realistic? If you’re not making the progress you hoped, perhaps you’re asking too much of yourself. Trying to be superman or superwoman will only wear you out; you’ve got to pace yourself for this journey. Sort out your priorities, break tasks down into manageable chunks, do whatever you can to smooth your own path: this isn’t about giving yourself a hard time, it’s about facilitating your success.

Is this really the way you want to go? If you find yourself consistently resisting progress, the chances are you’re trying to push yourself towards somewhere you don’t really want to be. Never mind what other people think. Forget ‘should’ and ‘must’. What is your heart’s desire?

Another possibility is that you’re sabotaging your own progress because you don’t believe you deserve to achieve your heart’s desire or that somehow it’s not your destiny. I spent many years wrestling with this and, if you suspect it may be the case for you, I urge you to invest time and energy in rooting out this poison ivy that’s blocking your path to happiness. The life you dream of is not just for other people. Honestly.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Tumblr

The road to a better life

 Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on The road to a better life
Jan 012013

It’s New Year’s Day, a time for reflection and a time for planning. If we want to improve our lives, the first thing we have to do is decide what we really want. It’s all very fine knowing what we don’t want, but life will not actually improve until we identify what we do want. Until we know where we want to be, we can’t start moving towards it.

So the first task of 2013 is to visualise our destination, the life we really want. Think about every area of your life – love, family, home, work, friends, social, cultural, spiritual, creative, intellectual, financial… What do you really want your life to be like?

Now, it’s very important to distinguish here what you genuinely long for from what you feel you should want or what other people may want you to want. If you set yourself goals that are for other people’s benefit rather than your own, the chances are you won’t achieve them, since your heart won’t be in it; you’ll end up berating yourself for failure and nothing will improve. I’m not saying be selfish but I am saying be true to yourself. I firmly believe that this is the only way to success and happiness but it’s taken me a long time to come round to this philosophy, so let me share with you my two main reasons. The first is that I can’t give of my best to the world if I’m not fulfilled. The second is that I spent 40 years second-guessing other people, trying to be what they wanted me to be, and my life fell between two stools. I was depressed and frustrated because nothing was as I wanted it to be – and I never got the affirmation I craved from my mother. The sacrifice of my dreams went unnoticed by the person for whom I’d made it: don’t let this happen to you.

The more clearly we can visualise the life we want, the more easily we can make it come true. I find a very useful exercise is to describe my ideal situation on paper. Writing it down brings it to life and makes it feel real and it also helps clarify the details. Write in the present tense, as if you’ve already made it happen, as if you’re living it now. This is just for you to see, so write freely; let it flow and take you where it will – you might be surprised what your subconscious mind throws up. Keep this pen-picture of your ideal life as a reminder of your destination, to look at whenever you need inspiration.

Once you can clearly visualise the life you want, it’s time to start converting dreams into plans. Again, write it all down and keep it to refer to.

If your dream life seems so far out of reach it’s just depressing, let me assure you it’s not unattainable. It’s simply a matter of approaching it in the right way. I say ‘simply’ because, although it took me decades to grasp this idea, it is actually a straightforward and logical concept. The right approach consists of mental discipline to prevent yourself from sabotaging your own progress and of breaking your journey into manageable segments.

We’ll talk about the mental aspect in subsequent posts. For now, let’s concentrate on the practical side of focusing your goals. Here’s the system that works for me:

Make a list of your overall objectives in each area of your life. Be positive, be specific and have a clear notion of how you will know when you’ve achieved it. For example, ‘Drink less alcohol’ may be an excellent objective but tightening up the language will give you a better chance of achieving it. ‘Less’ is both nebulous and negative. I suggest a better goal would be something like ‘Have two healthy, alcohol-free days every week’. It’s vital to think not about what you’re giving up but about what you’re gaining.

For each of your objectives, make a list of smaller steps that will take you to where you want to be. For example, if you want to make more friends, think about how you can bring yourself into contact with more people, how you’re going to approach them, whether online social media might help to consolidate relationships, etc.

If these steps still seem big, break them down again – and again – until you’ve got some steps you can actually take today. If you’ve decided to get out more, what are you specifically going to do? Is there an event, a class, a group you can join right now?

Decide on an order of priority for your objectives. If you try to do too much at once, your efforts are likely to end in tears. Rome wasn’t built in a day; slow and steady wins the race – you know the score.

Give each objective and each step towards it a timescale and a deadline. This is a fine balance between being realistic and challenging yourself but without deadlines the best-laid plans drift into the long grass. Put yours in your diary, on your calendar, and keep them on track. 

So there we are, the first of 52 ways to improve your life: identify your ideal destination and work out how you’re going to get there. Then we can set off! It’s going to be an exciting journey. Happy New Year!

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Tumblr