We can all have great intentions or make bold proclamations about what we will achieve but until action is taken, it’s just a theory. Not that theory has no value, on the contrary most powerful actions started as theories. But if the thought or talk is not paired with purposeful action, nothing changes and the value is negligible.
“Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
~ George Clinton
The challenge is getting over the hump of inertia that stops us from taking action. And there always are, and always will be, valid excuses or justifications to rationalize the hump. Pick the one that suits you best, but know that it achieves little beyond providing temporary relief or a distraction from reality. The fact remains: if you want something important to happen, the spotlight is pointing in your direction.
This can be terrifying (all that responsibility) or it can be liberating (you have the power to enact change). Neither perspective alters what needs to happen out in the world. How you feel about the prospects of taking action doesn’t alter the most effective actions to take. At least it shouldn’t.
Obviously it does because a person that feels terrified is likely to take much smaller or safer actions than someone who feels liberated. Which highlights an important insight – your mind has a strong influence over what actually happens in your life. How you think may very well have a direct, causal relationship with what you get.
So what if you could free your mind so that your actions would follow?
You can. People do it all the time. You will have done it many times in your life without consciously acknowledging it. At one point you probably thought you could never ride a bike or drive a car or cook an edible meal. But then you learned how and now you can. So why wouldn’t this be true of the things that make the hump seem so insurmountable?
You may try and fail
It’s true! Failure is a very real possibility; in fact it’s highly likely. And? So?
You’ve failed many times in your life as well. It didn’t used to matter so much and then suddenly it did and the older you got the more significant failure seemed to become. Until it became something to avoid at all costs. Often to the point where the perceived costs far outweigh the actual consequences of failing.
Let’s try to put it in perspective. Yes, failure may have cost you money, wasted some time; feasibly your pride or confidence took a hit or perhaps something worse. It stings, no doubt. Nobody can deny you that; the pain is real. It’s real for a reason: because we learn from pain; it’s necessary for the survival of the species. We only learn though IF we pay attention to the pain of failure and stand to face its truth. We don’t tend to learn much when we try to dismiss it, get over it too quickly or worse, use it to flog ourselves. These almost never work and generally make matters worse or destine us to repeat the same mistakes.
So why is it such a common response to failure? To swallow the pain or crank up the blame machine and turn it inwards with fact-poor and judgment-heavy rumination about what could have been if we hadn’t failed or been such a disappointment. It’s as though the transition to adulthood came with bugs in the software that hardwired us to choose self-destruction. We can even acknowledge that we’re enabling our feelings to have undue bearing over our actions and still believe it’s out of our control to intervene.
Consequently, the net cost of failure begins to skyrocket. There’s the real cost of the failure, plus the cost of self-flagellation, rounded off by the disempowering belief that we’re powerless to break the cycle. So when it comes to trying over, this is the minefield we have to navigate: how to protect our self-worth when it’s at risk of getting blown up every time there’s an unsuccessful outcome? Each step is a cautionary reminder to think again.
We have to somehow figure out how to stop working against ourselves by engaging in such self-destructive paradigms and to remember that the most important goal is to learn from a failure to minimize the chances of it happening again. It’s a superior choice to learn than it is to suffer. The best approach that I’m aware of is to do what pain intended for us to do. To be present with it so you can absorb its lessons and develop muscle memory. Not be consumed by it, only learn from it. Light touches so you can remain engaged in the world and avoid getting bowled over by the next inevitable setback. Let’s call it ‘resilience’.
A resilient mindset seeks the truth and converts the lessons of failure into fuel to keep going. Why would you not want to gain something from a failure when you just sacrificed so much time, energy or money getting to it? There is energy here, use it to your advantage not your disadvantage.
This doesn’t mean you set out to fail. Rather you set out knowing very well that failure could happen. This reality check engages the analytical mind so that you start thinking about the risks involved or the consequences of bad decisions. If this is done with the backdrop of painful but useful lessons, chances are you will think of ways to mitigate the risks or realistically assess what you’re heading into. Either way your eyes are wide open and your feet are firmly on the ground.
The one thing failure should never be is a reason not to try.
Planning still matters
If you can free your mind from the paralyzing fear of failing, it will create space to take action. Yet there will always be more options than we can ever pursue so we have to make choices about what actions to take. So if success is the goal, it is prudent to focus on the specific actions that improve the chances of that success happening and/or which mitigate the risks of failure. Few could argue with that.
So why do people waste so much time and energy on actions that achieve neither of these things? One reason is because they don’t take planning seriously so they’re not discerning about how they spend their time. They don’t fail so much because their idea is bad than because they don’t know how to bring it to the world before it explodes. They believe they’ll figure it out along the way so they don’t take the time and energy to think it through first.
There are many problems with this. You might be hopelessly unprepared. You may do the right things in the wrong sequence and end up having to repeat them when you have less money and energy. Focus and accountability inevitably get overlooked or undervalued which leads to disjointed behavior that resembles the actions of someone trying to push a piece of string. People find the thought of planning so unpalatable that they would rather pursue action that is lacking in purpose, form and structure. And they don’t see the connection when they fail.
A plan is less important than the discipline of planning. It rarely provides a roadmap to success because you can’t think everything through ahead of time and you will have to figure some things out along the way as you learn. Course corrections are usually necessary so a plan is not the end of planning; it’s a temporary step on the journey. We have to stay in the mindset of planning so that we’re always thinking about what we’re trying to achieve and whether it’s working or not so we can adjust what actions we take or what resources we allocate. We need fewer plans that lock us into a course of action and more that help us navigate the uncertainties.
Plans don’t need to be cumbersome gant chants that kill any joy you have for life. These may have their place if you’re engaged in something complicated where multiple streams of activity need to be coordinated, but not at first. The first round of planning should be oriented toward figuring out the big picture: What are you trying to do, why, by when and how much will it cost for what sort of return? To answer questions like these well you need to do a lot of deep thinking and research. This is the biggest benefit. Not a glossy plan brimming with as much optimism as there are assumptions.
Convert chores into missions
If you’ve ever tried to learn an instrument or a language and given up because it felt too much like a chore, it’s probably because it was. Chores are things we have to do but wouldn’t if we didn’t; unpleasant but necessary tasks. If this is how you related to the learning process, no wonder you quit if the learning wasn’t ‘necessary’.
Accomplishing anything significant is likely going to entail periods of drudgery. Practice, falling on your face or sounding like an amateur, more practice, more failure, repeat. We’re told these days that it takes 10,000 hours or more to achieve mastery so what are we to do? Learn to love the chores or avoid them and give up on our dreams?
What are the options for those of us who are lazier than this and will never get on board with the chores? Surely we don’t have to practice scales in order to learn to play an instrument. Surely there are ways to make the learning fun or at least somewhat enticing. Of course there are! The idea that learning must revolve around the grind is a factoid – an invented fact believed to be true because it’s so commonly held and quoted. Sounds similar to the claim that medicine must taste nasty for it to be effective.
There are many ways to accomplish goals and relating to them as a chore is one of the least effective, albeit one of the most common. When we build experiences up in our minds to be boring, painful, wearisome or other such uplifting adjectives, the chances of us voluntarily embracing such experiences tend to plummet. It’s evidenced everywhere from unused gym memberships to barely read self-help books. We scarcely get started and when our concerns are quickly validated, we concede defeat. Houston, we failed to launch.
“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
~ Bill Gates
If you want to accomplish something significant, it pays to reframe the chore mentality as quickly as possible. It’s not as simple as pretending a chore is not a chore; it requires more sophisticated reengineering than this. Preferably early on, during that big picture planning I mentioned above. It begins with a question such as this:
How will you keep going when it sucks?
It’s an important question to contemplate because if you can’t answer it thoughtfully, what are you going to do? Hope that it doesn’t suck? Brace yourself for the suffering? Worry about it later?
A more thoughtful approach would be to know yourself and what your tendencies are. What gives you more staying power? What lights you up and gives you the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that will put you on a mission to succeed? What sucks your passion and where will you draw resilience from?
When we feel like we’re on a mission we don’t even think about the chores. They’re just tasks that have to get done. The fact that they’re tedious or painful becomes less relevant. Sometimes a great accomplishment will start off as a mission and remain that way but this is rare. It’s more likely to start off as a drag or turn into one at some point in the journey. So the challenge is how to keep the mission top of mind and to use it to sedate the complaining mind so it can’t sabotage your current experience.
This takes motion and like any motion, it’s the early motion that takes the most energy. So when you’re thinking about how you will keep going when it sucks, pay particular attention to the early stages. How will you generate that activation energy to overcome the inertia and deal with the multitudes of excuses and avoidance behavior? Once you have some traction, it will be easy to keep the motion going but you do need to think about continuity of motion because once you stop it may be even harder to restart than it was to start.