I spent a lot of time in my childhood visiting my father in Virginia, where I frequented Luray Caverns and this famous underground wishing well on several occasions. The wishing well, I’ve come to realize, is a great metaphor for our brains: we spend a lot of time tossing dreams in, but often only a little time afterward trying to make them come true.
Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to define when our good intentions and plans for the future cross over from the realm of positive, real effort to indulgence in sweet daydreams about what we might like to accomplish.
After all, as humans, we are very, very good at fooling ourselves. As I wrote about here, even announcing our intentions to do something can give us a false sense of accomplishment that convinces us it’s okay to “relax our efforts” about a daunting challenge we’ve only recently undertaken or haven’t even started yet. Why this should be is as yet an unsolved mystery, but I’ve realized I have to guard very, very carefully against this kind of thinking. With that in mind, I’ve been lately researching what other writers and bloggers have to say on the subject, and have come up with a list of things you can do to protect yourself against false progress and really get stuff done.
1. Go On A Date With Your Dreams
I wrote about this in this post, and I really don’t think there’s any better place to start figuring out how to get what you want. Because the thing is, if you try to convince yourself you want something that you really don’t, you’re not going to get very far. If you have a long-held dream you’ve never started, or are failing at one you’ve been pursuing for a while, it’s time to ask if that dream is for you. Is medical school right for you? Should you be planning this wedding? Do you really want to be a size 2, or would a plan to involve fresh veggies in every meal accomplish your health dreams just as well? I’m not saying your dreams are false, because usually they aren’t. I’m just saying you ought to make sure.
2. Break Tasks Down Into Their Smallest Components
If you want to repaint your dining room set but putting “repaint dining room set” on your To Do List has so far yielded little result, you need to break the task down further. What do you need to start? Sandpaper? Primer? Paint? Topcoat? TIME? Make a plan for how you’re going to get all of these things, and put real, measurable actions on your list instead of broad dreams. For instance, you might list “ask Mom about taking the kids” and “research paint colors at Home Depot.” These steps are as small as they can be, and therefore much less daunting.
3. Utilize Your Resources Effectively
Lots of people fail because they aren’t turning to the right places for help. I know I’m guilty of this: I want to write about lifestyle, dreams, goals, careers and happiness … but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to convince myself I’m a science writer, a food writer, a culture writer. Well, I’m not. Therefore I need to pick up books and read blogs related to the things I’m actually driven to write about, and engage with the people who actually want to hear what I have to say. Nothing else will work. Stop telling your fashion-oriented friends you want to be an economist and expecting them to care. Your vegan best friend probably isn’t going to be much help getting your bacon waffle stand off the ground. Find your people, find the places and things that will help you succeed instead of forcing the preexisting supports in your life to become something else.
4. Cut Yourself a Break
Again, I’m very guilty of not doing this. I’m all or nothing, either in it to win it or super unmotivated. Unfortunately, no one ever got anywhere spending all their time on reruns and giant bowls of noodles, but LOTS of successful people achieved by doing these things once in a while. Now I try to take a healthier approach, working until I really can’t anymore, and then taking a break. And then getting right back up and going at it once more.
5. Know Yourself
It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I do NOT benefit from telling my plans to people. When I do, I get paralyzed: I start worrying about showing them the final product, or even the work-in-progress, and anxiety roots deeply and firmly. So when I’m starting something new these days, I tend to keep mum. However, you may be part of the large tribe of people who benefit from outside motivation and the threat of embarrassment when you fail, so telling people may be the best way for you to pursue your dreams. It’s all about what works for you.