There’s a superior method to ensure ambitions are fulfilled.

Summary: Change your mindset when it comes to ambitious goals — break them down into tangible and practical daily routines.

Author’s Note: This article is an expansion of two articles I wrote for Beeminder:
The Tao of Bees
The Sting of Work

Dreams on the Backburner

As a writer, I find myself getting into slumps where I don’t write anything at all. Contradictory? — There will be eighty different half-finished pieces in my drafts. I’ll have a late-night epiphany while trying to go to sleep or in the middle of a shower about what would make a good post.

But then I never write the posts. Eventually, those supposedly great ideas just disappear, and I grow old and whither away and die, and never publish anything. The end.

Why does this happen? Why don’t we work on the things we find important and/or enjoy doing? The answer is usually not a simple one. Life is busy, a high-strung juggling-act of responsibilities.

One of the most difficult pills to swallow is that when we put our goals on the backburner, they usually end up staying there forever. Pretty heavy, right? But it’s true.

But if we don’t want to put goals on the backburner, there’s a need to integrate what we really want to do into daily life. It sounds cheesy, I know, and also difficult. But while it’s not an easy task, it’s also not an impossible one.

Purpose Needs to Come First

Don’t dive head-first into a goal without first asking yourself why. What are the benefits to achieving your goal? Does the outcome make all the work worth it? What do you value strongly that would give a goal meaning? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will help move you from busywork to doing things that are more important.

Commit to what excites you. It’s psychologically important to have a feeling of free will with your goals. Make a clear distinction between the work you have to do, and the work you want to do. If you don’t feel like you’re doing something for just yourself, it’ll feel like another chore. Don’t commit to anything because other people think you should. It’s only you.

Having well-defined principles can give you the discipline to carry out difficult tasks, even if there’s a lack of motivation. Think deeply about what would help your community, your company, or your future self. Making your commitments serious will allow you to take them seriously.

Changing Behavior is Hard

Humans are creatures of habit — more than anything else. According to Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, 40–45% of the actions we take on a daily basis are habitual.

The goals we set for ourselves aren’t accomplish-able because we don’t take into account the true amount of energy and deliberate action it takes to replace currently-entrenched behavior and habits.

When writing out long-term goals, it’s easy to become too focused on the future and not realize that what you’re doing in the present is actually what matters. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you do in six months, it matters what you do right now.

Ambitious goals are good to have — but they need to be broken down in order to actually be accomplished. What can you do this month, this week, or even just today? Creating smaller short-term goals is key to make far-out dreams become tangible, less scary — and most importantly, actually possible.

Systems: Taking Over Our Default Process

This is where the concept of systems comes in. A system can be defined as a daily routine to develop a skill over time, and encourages a positive feedback loop.

Systems allow you to work gradually and linearly. This is in contrast to impulsively doing a bunch of work at once — to take the middle path and find balance, while also having the ability to slowly push yourself as time goes on. This allows you to create good work consistently without burning out.

Why daily? — Momentum is everything. Neglecting commitments for even just a single day has consequences. Tomorrow’s task list is just as busy as today’s, which means you’ll have twice the work to do when you put things off. Postponed tasks build up quickly, and create momentum in the wrong direction.

You may initially think that you’re too busy to incorporate a new daily routine — but this is untrue. As Seneca wrote, it is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Think about all the time you unknowingly waste simply by having distractions around you. If you tracked your usual day, how much of your time is spent doing things you actively enjoy?

When you realize the time you spend doing mindless tasks that don’t truly bring you happiness, you’ll be surprised to see how much wiggle room life actually has. And the truth of the matter is you’ll end up having more time to relax or try something new, because there will be less time spent worrying about what you think you should be doing.

System Building

In order to create a system for yourself, you must first figure out the goal: What do you want to change in your life? All goals should begin like this. As I wrote earlier, solid purpose is everything. Then, figure out meaningful quantification of that qualitative goal. Don’t let ambiguity allow you to slip — put an exact number on what you want to accomplish.

After that, figure out how to convert your qualitative goal into a daily system. Those goals above may seem daunting but they’re actually a lot more achievable when you break them down. Let me demonstrate with an example:

Case Study: Writing

A good example of a system would be the follow:
I will write [X] words per day at [X:XX] in the morning.

Some people would call this a writing habit — but it isn’t. It requires intention and mindfulness to complete each day, and each day there will be resistance to scoff it off. There’s no autopilot that pushes us to improve our talents, critically and creatively think, or deliberately create work.

Nothing will fall into place by itself. There are a lot of pieces to your puzzle, and it might not all click at once. The thing to understand is that if you commit to working hard, the law of serendipity will eventually favor you.

The goal of writing 100,000 words in a year can seem daunting to a beginner, but if this goal was converted to a daily system, then only 275 words per day need to be written.

This doesn’t mean you’ll have 200 pages of good writing —especially if you’re just starting out. The first try always sucks, and mastery takes a lot of time.

The first attempt is never meant to be good, it’s meant to be an attempt. Systems are about the process, and having the patience to cultivate your skills. Grit your teeth and push through it, and accept the time it’ll take to achieve what you originally envisioned.

At the same time, know what you’re capable of — the Internet does makes it easy to get lost in other people’s lifestyle goals. From writing 750 words a day, or meditating for 30 minutes each morning, to only eating fresh greens (yuck!), and so on.

But your mileage may vary greatly, and certain goals may or may not be realistic for you — that’s for you to discover. Be mindful of the Ancient Greek aphorism, know thyself. Start small and gradually ramp up, and you’ll find out exactly what works for you!

No Magic Bullet

My final tip, and biggest takeaway, is that there’s no way to avoid doing hard work, just different (and perhaps smarter) approaches to it. There is no magic bullet or cure-all solution when it comes to making your goals actually occur.

Spending time looking for an easy solution, or following whatever trendy advice offers shortcuts, will always be a band-aid approach. It all boils down to doing a lot of hard work, and figuring out how to be happy about doing that hard work.

When it comes to the self, there is no finished product, just many, many revisions. So just jump into it, and learn to observe what works and what doesn’t work. Build on the good, disregard the bad, and don’t hesitate to re-calibrate when necessary.

SUMMARY:

  • Goals are difficult because they require far more fundamental change and energy than most people realize. In order to accomplish something big, you have to sacrifice a large amount of time and effort. Law of equivalent exchange, right?
  • There needs to be purpose before anything else. People that have the ability to do difficult work when they don’t enjoy it have a deep-rooted and personally important reason for doing it. What do you want to truly contribute to the world — and why?
  • Change is hard. We are deeply entrenched in our current behavior, and it takes constant mindfulness and intent to change our ways and not slip back into easier, less healthy habits.
  • Build systems out of your goals. In order to actually have the ability to accomplish what you set out to do, you need to break down your larger goals into small and tangible weekly and daily goals. Make time each day to develop your skills and work on what’s important.
  • There is no magic bullet. Don’t let yourself get fooled into thinking there’s an easier way to get from where you currently are to where you want to be. It’s a waste of time. Figure out the smartest way to work hard and ignore the snake oil salesmen.
Thanks for Reading!