By now, I’m guessing your life has returned to normal following the relaxing, eating and partying of the Holidays – which probably kept you from reviewing what you achieved in 2010. Do so now, and behold as 2011 transforms before your very eyes.
The pre-vacation productivity sprint
I’ve always found one of the most interesting things about holidays and vacations – except from what occurs within them – to be the tendency people have to get their professional matters sorted before packing their bags. These proverbial stakes in the ground appear to offer sufficient – although short-lived – motivation to stop procrastinating and start prioritizing, with utterly astonishing results (oh good, you spotted the irony) of being able to remove a few heavyweights from one’s task list.
That, and the sinking feeling that there’s something you should have finished before you left which will loom ominously over your head until you return to handle matters with proper care.
Everybody’s doing it (mostly wrong)
Let’s say you could choose to be in a state such as described above only for the Holidays and vacations, or all the time. That’s a rather stupid remark, you think, before suddenly discovering that the question is a trap preceding a subsequent question: to which of these groups do you belong? Be honest now – there’s noone listening in, after all.
Now, regardless of your answer, lift your eyes from the screen and look around the office (or feel free to pretend to, if you’re elsewhere): how many people do you know that appear to be in this state continuously?
Odd as it may seem, the majority of us plod along as unwilling members of the just-before-the-Holidays group even though we secretly yearn to be ahead of the game. It’s only human, after all, and it takes willingness to learn, patience, and a tolerance for failure before we can apply for permanent transfer to the second group.
The most amusing part? Well, that’s the simplicity of it all: when presented with a deadline which holds sufficient value for us, we almost always find a way to achieve this state in order for us to enjoy our vacation guilt-free. The less amusing part? Apparently, our own stated goals (or lack thereof) apparently do not align very well with what holds true value for us, as we would then be able to maintain such a state continuously.
That, dear Reader, means it’s time to put on the thinking cap.
How what you didn’t like in 2010 can be used to your advantage in 2011
Here’s a little challenge for you: grab something to write on and with, and get out of here for 2 minutes. When you come back, I’d like you to stick the list to your monitor. On it will be a list of your top 5 achievements for 2010 – in prioritized order.
If you cannot do this, there are two lessons to be learned, which I will return to shortly. If you can do so, I would like to extend my congratulations: you are officially admitted as a honorary member of the anally retentive overachievers’ club by every single person you know. Oh, and you get the satisfaction of knowing that you – most likely – have been doing exactly what you have been wanting to do for a whole year. You should be immensely satisfied with yourself.
The two lessons to be learned if you are unable to honestly draw up such a list are as follows: 1) You need to contemplate the difference between work and passion rigorously, since the former creates momentum akin to a 2-ton boulder firmly affixed in a crevice. 2) You do not want to waste another year of your life – it’s too short for that.
Now, you might feel some concern regarding planning your life in such a detailed manner. That’s common, as most people assume that the contents of these precocious lists of goals that everybody keep blathering about should relate only to professional achievements. Mine literally contains “schedule fun” (why not; I schedule other important things).
Your list may contain whatever you wish it to as long as it holds true value to you – in other words, the things that make you smile when you wake up in the morning in anticipation of yet another great day.
So, go ahead – use 2010 to get perspective, and then start chipping away at 2011 as if your life depends on it. Which, come to think of it, it does.
The simple summary
“A strong passion for any object will ensure success, for the desire of the end will point out the means” -William Hazlitt
It’s not that I disapprove of grand personal goals – but unless you’re financially independent and otherwise unoccupied, they may seem an insurmountable struggle to achieve – until you consider the incredible power of increments, that is.
The devil is in the details
Quick, here’s a question: how were the pyramids of Giza constructed? The Mona Lisa painted? The lunar landing accomplished? The Great Wall of China built? Unless you’re a few marbles short of the proverbial set of chinese checkers, you have most likely already guessed the answer: in increments. Now, try this one: what constitutes a grand goal? Ahh, that one’s a little bit harder, isn’t it.
A grand goal is to envision the pyramids of Giza, and focus not on the stones from which they were constructed, but rather the constructions themselves.
Most interesting, however, is the ability to realize that accumulating proper motivation for actually constructing a pyramid is achieved through focusing on the end result – whilst convincing yourself that you are in fact able to do depends on your ability to realize that it’s a matter of arranging a few thousand stones or so in the proper order. One. After. Another.
Everything momentuous is achieved in increments
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stick with problems longer” – Albert Einstein
The most common reason for why people achieve something momentuous is that they have a true passion for what they do, which acts as a natural enabler in terms of dedicating the amount of resources needed – be it time, energy, attention or something completely different.
For instance, take a gander at this fellow, whom is constructing a cathedral. Out of garbage.
Big or small, it doesn’t matter
What matters with increments is that they suit you. The first step towards completion is to create an inventory of which resources you have at your disposal – or, alternatively, how much you need and whether you must make any sacrifices in order to accomodate your priorities. If the answer is the latter, sit down and conduct what will hopefully be the first of many murderously boring things you will conduct in your endeavour for achievement: make a budget. Finances and time are the two most commonly expended resources, but there may be others particular to your goal.
Another thing which matters is measuring your progress, as it’s vital to be able to create motivation in the short to medium term and not only focusing on being able to single-handedly build a pyramid in a couple of hundred years. Keep it simple: either divide your project into a few (no more than ten) phases with which you are comfortable setting as milestones, or divide it into four by an properly suited, measurable scale such as the amount of muscle mass you intend to gain or the number of stones you will have dropped on your toes.
Learn to be content with incrementals
Inside each and every one of us, there’s a yearning to be extraordinary; to achieve something beyond expectations of our own as well as those of others.
You can do so.
There is one exception, however, and that is that in order to do so, you have to rid yourself of any illusions you might have concocted as to how great achievements are… well, achieved. Unless you’re a creative artist with an exceptional talent specializing in 5-second, $100.000 paintings, I’m afraid I’m going to have to pierce your bubble: Terrific. Things. Take. Time.
Fortunately, if you’re in pursuit of something you are truly passionate about, the expenditure of time will only seem a minor inconvenience. If you feel otherwise, however, I suggest you rather immediately sit down and devote a rather considerable effort towards finding something you are more passionate about.
Oh, and don’t forget: a setback isn’t a setback. It’s just another incremental step towards success.
The simple summary
Every now and then, we find ourselves blindsided righteously by this tumultuous world of ours, which often elicits more than a wee bit of inner turmoil. There’s a trick to getting back on track, though.
Find the consequences
When the world drops an anvil on you and everything suddenly changes, the first thing you should do is to find out what the consequences are. Sit down, shut up and do nothing – preferably for a couple of hours, and let the magical engine that is your brain do what it does best: analyse probable outcomes and how they might affect you. The alternative would be to react spontaneously, which rarely yields an ideal outcome.
Along the way, you’ll start (though in no way finish) processing the emotional aspects such as disappointment, frustration, sadness or simple rage, neither of which do you any favours in the process of making rational decisions, but serve as good indicators for developing a gut feeling for how much you care about the consequences in relation to other things of importance to you.
Find out whether you care
Once you’ve had a little bit of time to let the professional (aka your brain) handle the initial emergency response, it’s time to engage the conscious part of yourself and choose on what level you care – and here’s the trick: you do it binarily, meaning you either do care, or you do not care.
To avoid the situation becoming an unresolved issue and thus a permanent drain on your mental resources, you must invest the time and energy required to complete a potentially harrowing summit of Mount Indecision, and choose.
This is one of the secrets to leading a simpler life that are hidden in plain view: the ability to rationalize any task to the point where it carries no mental payload if a decision is made to not act upon it – to care, if you will. For some, this ability is innate, while for others – such as yours truly – it requires at least some practice.
Find your response
Once you have decided whether or not you care, the rest is simply a matter of taking a look at your long-term goals and choosing the path that you believe will bring you most in alignment with these. Also, remember that some times the smart choice is to lose the battle and win the war.
The simple summary
To me, simplicity is as much an antidote for the chaotic passage of everyday life as it is a recipe for achieving goals – and as far as I can tell, people seem increasingly attracted towards it. I think I know why.
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
There’s little denying that our world grows increasingly busy for every day that passes. Many things contribute to this development, yet this status quo is mostly owed to a single thing: competition. Take a system – any system, add participants, and observe as competition erupts. Capitalism, which has kept much of the modern world running for some time now, is no different.
A few years as an employee or entrepreneur teaches a lesson well: to succeed, you need to work harder – or smarter. Both require the expenditure of physical and mental resources, and even if you manage to do a great many things just right, there is always someone snapping at your heels to assume your position in the hierarchy. Quite possibly, even, at your cost.
For people who want to stay ahead, there are only two options: remove the competition, or outcompete them. And, since humans generally tend to shy away from assassination, increasing one’s level of engagement becomes the de facto standard response. But what happens when everyone is caught in this vicious cycle?
What happens is that an increasing number of people reach what I call their complexity threshold, and start yearning for a simpler life. It might not be completely in accordance with Newton’s third law, but I doubt he’d hold much of a grudge for drawing a parallel.
Balance is key
Work yourself to exhaustion for one week (which, granted, might be a necessary evil), and physics dictate your resource expenditure must be compensated. Juggle too many projects or tasks simultaneously, and the outcome will be much the same. The complexity surpasses its maximum sustainable rate either through prolonged exposure or a phase of compression, and unless your brain course corrects in time, your body will halt propulsion (don’t try this at home).
So, should complexity be avoided due to its negative effects? Absolutely not. As humans, it is obvious that we thrive when we have complex challenges to solve. It’s not a new thing either – one merely have to consider Angkor Wat, the Pyramids or the Chinese Wall to name a few astonishingly complex accomplishments – some of which aren’t even fully understood to date.
What nature demands is balance, and if you fail to deliver – well, then you’re in for the ride of your lifetime.
Simplicity brings focus to what’s important
It’s alright to be egocentric. How do you think the personal and professional aspects of your life (and the relationships attached to these) will evolve if you feel miserable most of the time as a consequence of not prioritizing the important things which refuel you both physically and mentally?
The process of simplifying entails taking a long, hard, look at the plate of life and entering into a continuous process of exchanging the bits that aren’t to your liking. Given a sufficient amount of contemplation, what is important will naturally surface as priorities – and if acted upon in the proper way, pursuing them will make you wake up with a smile in the morning.
Simplicity brings about success
A common trait in most people I discuss this topic with is the realization that something isn’t quite right, and that changes must take place in order to bring about what is often coined a “better life”. However, few buckle down and invest the mental expenditure required to stare down the sandblower that is life and emerge with their features intact. And, even if they do, simple fear of change – or not succeeding – may still represent an obstacle.
Still, simplicity appears to rank highly even on the lists of those who haven’t had the time or opportunity to contemplate matters more thoroughly – most likely due to a simple correlation between the perceived amount of time required to execute something complex as opposed to something simple. Free up time, and suddenly there’s more of it to figure out what one wants, or how to get it if the former has already been nailed down.
Which is very true, even though it’s highly preferable to avoid skipping the contemplation part of the process. Simplifying matters brings about focus, which is essential to succeeding at anything. Just think about how, as a child, you could spend hours building a house of cards and forget that the rest of the world even existed.
The fewer things that are on your mind, the better you will be able to execute the ones that rattle around in there. And, the simpler you keep things, the easier they will be to execute.
The simple summary