Sometimes it’s better not to set goals or make big promises. A goals can help you stay on track, but it can also become a mental burden that kills the entire endeavor.
So rather than put a strain on your brain with an enduring thought of a grand end result, such as “Write a book on seabed hunting,” you will feel less pressure every day if you choose to focus on immediate actions that slowly affect the long run: (in the case of writing the aforementioned book) writing your thoughts down, structuring them, drafting, revising, etc.
Here’s a simple exercise for you: write down three goals that you are either currently working on or are planning to pursue in the near future, and share them in the comments below.
Now, let’s look at what your goals look like on paper. How detailed are they?
Most goals tend to be awfully vague.
- Write a book
- Quit my day job
- Earn $100,000 in a year
- Learn Cantonese
The problem is that they’re too far away from your current standpoint to serve as realistic beacons. If you’ve just started jotting down ideas for a new book that you want to write, you’re probably not going to finish it in the next couple of weeks. So what you’ll need is a set of actionable tasks that push you forward. I’ll remind you again that a big goal will give you a general idea of what you’re going to accomplish, but that should not equate to a realistic goal that you should be able to achieve in a short period of time (several days).
Being fixed on a goal that’s a lightyear away easily becomes a burden that you eventually begin to resent. The more you focus on the end result the farther away it seems to be. Focusing on the ultimate goal causes you to lose focus on the more important stuff, that is, smaller actions that, in the end, actualize the goal.
When you start to resent the promises you’ve made (to yourself or others) you begin to wish that you had never made them. This is when the goal takes all your attention but you fail to accomplish anything. You procrastinate. You think obsessively about the burden. And you want to quit.
When this happens you need to stop, and rethink.
Certainly not all endeavors are meant for everyone. Although we may initially enthuse over something that seems interesting and worth devoting ourselves to, it’s possible that we end up losing all interest in a matter of weeks or a single night. Sometimes it takes no longer than 10 minutes, but it can also take years to realize that it’s not our enduring passion. And that’s fine. I think it’s better to quit and look for something that you can genuinely feel passionate about in the long-term than it is to force yourself to finish what you’ve started.
As I said, you shouldn’t dismiss your goals altogether. Say you want to learn Mandarin Chinese. We could assume that your ultimate goal is to become fluent in the language. Achieving that goal generally takes years, so you’ll need to break the goal into much smaller, actionable tasks that you can complete along the course of those x number of years that it takes to become fluent.
Let’s take a look at one possible way to start.
- Learn pinyin, i.e. Chinese written using a modified version of the Latin alphabet. (Estimated completion time: 2–3 days)
- Learn how to say, “Hi, do you wanna go drink beer with me?” (Estimated completion time: 1 day)
- Get the pronunciation right for the phrase. (Estimated completion time: 1 day)
“Learn pinyin” can sound similar to “learn Mandarin Chinese” but the difference is that it doesn’t take years or months or even weeks to learn how to read and write pinyin. This is why it’s important to append an approximate time limit to each task. But you should also note that the longer the time limit the less realistic the task usually is. So if you estimate that a task will take a month to complete, I highly advise you to break that task into even smaller sub-tasks that take days—not weeks or months—to complete. Again, you’ll want to focus on the present, not the future.
People, like myself, who have difficulties kicking off might find it easier to work on tasks by providing directions on how to go about completing them. I’ve noticed that writing down instructions for myself usually helps me to orient myself and get started. It’s a great way to combat procrastination.
Here’s what I might do with the above tasks if they still seem too ambiguous.
- Learning pinyin, of course, doesn’t happen all by itself. You need to acquire some source material. So what you can do is, Google “learn pinyin” and look for a nice website with audio clips that shows how you’re supposed to interpret pinyin.
- To learn how to say “Hi, do you wanna go drink beer with me?” in Mandarin Chinese, you can search for a forum or any kind of online community populated by native Chinese speakers, and ask its members to translate the phrase into Chinese.
- For correct pronunciation, you need to get the phrase in pinyin. Once you know how they’re spelled in pinyin, you can then apply the knowledge you’ve gained from studying the pinyin system and polish your pronunciation.
When you have a set of actionable tasks, you’re good to go. The rest will take care of itself, as long as you keep preparing more actionable tasks as you go.
Above all, enjoy the process. When you genuinely love what you do, the goal suddenly becomes a neat by-product. In other words, the action itself becomes the goal, meaning that the excitement and passion stem from the little tasks that you immerse yourself in.