Do you have a grand life plan or an as yet unfulfilled goal?
Do you roll around in your pants on the sofa imagining how great life could be, but doing nothing about it?
Perhaps you’ve diligently completed every available goal-setting worksheet, but to no avail.
Well if you’re not where you want to be in life, put the nacho down amigo, as this article’s for you.
Because that dream you’ve been feverishly imagining…?
It might not be for you after all.
The problem with ambition
Many people don’t know their life purpose and for those fortunate few that do, their big bad goal is likely a clawed, fanged, hairy beast.
Intimidating to say the least.
It might be a goal so far removed from your current reality that you can’t even imagine the steps needed to get there.
Such uncertainty is no bueno.
We retreat to what we know, a familiar space in which to avoid the discomfort of change. In other words, we become stuck.
The result of fear is often inertia.
Grand visions contain so many complex steps for their fulfilment that it feels easier to do nothing.
But this creates a rather crappy feeling of cognitive dissonance.
We know where we want to be but also that we’re not taking the action steps needed to get there.
Frustration sets in as we create convenient fictional obstacles as excuses for our lack of progress, masking a deeper sense of helplessness and self-loathing.
Unsurprisingly, these two factors form a self-reinforcing loop of despair.
You look around enviously at people who’ve made it and wonder at their dark magic, before bemoaning your own personal failures.
But there’s good news…
Perhaps you’re looking at it wrong.
A better question
Before assessing our life plan and goals, we frequently fail to ask ourselves one important question:
What would your life actually look like if you achieved your big goal?
Easy you might think. After all, you’ve imagined such details in all the shiny glory countless times. So, let’s get more specific:
What would your life look like on a day to day basis if you achieved your goal?
That qualifier if mighty important, because it tells you whether your goal’s even valid.
You see, it’s so easy to become obsessed by a big goal when our imagination runs amok, inventing colourful visions to compensate for various unknowns and blind spots.
We envision a future life of ice cream and kittens where our problems magically dissolve.
But we’re so removed from that reality that we fail to accurately assess our likely day to day to day existence upon the attainment of that future goal.
For example, even if you suddenly started earning more money, how much would your daily reality appreciably change?
If you magically grew a chiselled six-pack, how different would you feel waking up in the morning?
Here’s the thing…
We often overestimate the effect of positive and negative changes alike, especially as we adjust to these changes over time and they become our new baseline norm.
We just kinda get used to our current reality, whatever that may be.
By zooming out and perceiving only the broad brushstrokes of our perfect future, we neglect the subtleties of the image and what that future will actually entail on a quotidian day.
It’s only when we narrow our focus that we can put our goals into realistic context and see if they still make sense.
Goal setting gone wrong
This is why there’s so often disillusionment when people finally achieve their goals after many years of toil and strife.
You see, they’ve only considered the big picture, implicitly assuming there’d be a drastic change in their daily experience upon attaining their dream.
The fact that nothing much changes causes an existential car crash, forcing them to reconsider their most fundamental assumptions.
Perhaps you fantasise about finally becoming a published author, but after the initial thrill of book signings and media hype, you realise you’re still expected to write every day.
If you’ve used writing as a means to an end and don’t actually enjoy the process, this comes as an unwelcome punch in solar plexus.
If you’ve dreamt of owning your own business and making fistfuls of money, but don’t revel in the day to day process of running a business, eventual success will seem like a hollow victory.
So, what’s next?
Go small or go home
This mini-experiment is powerful because it can potentially save much struggle and pain.
You see, if we get more specific and decide how we want our lives to look on a daily basis, we can better decide which goal to chase.
By breaking down your perfect day and comparing it side by side with your goal, you’ll know whether it’s what you want.
And here’s the thing…
Frequently, you’ll discover that many of the things you’d choose for your perfect day can be achieved without the attainment of that goal.
And if that’s the case, you needn’t strive for years and years when your perfect day is only a few small decisions away.
The point is, rather than chasing some imaginary, distant future goal, you may find it more helpful to optimise your life around your ideal day.
Rather than being intimidating, this provides a more digestible process.
On a practical level this might look like the following:
If you enjoy writing, rather than setting yourself the scary goal of becoming a published author, simply sit down and write every day.
You needn’t be a published author to enjoy writing regularly.
If you’re interested in becoming a computer programmer, simply pay for a cheap Udemy course and get coding!
Not only will you get to create fun projects, but also build a portfolio for any eventual interviews.
This philosophy is much more manageable and allows you to dispense with the prestige of formal recognition and simply enjoy the activity as it’s own reward.
Process over goals
In effect, you’re achieving two things by reverse engineering your perfect day.
- You’re focusing on the process instead of the result, which paradoxically, increases the likelihood of achieving your original goal
- You’re maximising your happiness in the short term by optimising for an enjoyable day, and ensuring that you love what you do regardless of whether or not you achieve your goal
Achieving goals is by no means guaranteed.
So by asking ourselves how we want to structure our days for maximum enjoyment, we narrow our zone of focus, overcoming uncertainty and reducing the activation energy required to engage in positive, productive activities.
The next time you’re thinking about your life plan and creating grand goals, consider going smaller, not bigger.
It’s not to say you can’t have big goals.
It’s just better to consider what you want to include in your ideal day ahead of time to know whether you even need to chase that goal.
Because odds are, you can start constructing a better reality today, one small piece at a time.