Just about every person I know complains about how busy they are, how they can’t set out to do the things that they really want to be doing. I’m as guilty of it as the next girl, and it can really be depressing when you see your life pass by and you still haven’t managed to learn to speak Mandarin, or play the piano or write that world-beating novel.
The simple fact is that successful people manage to achieve what they want to, not with the use of a time machine (the Doctor and the TARDIS notwithstanding), but by managing the time that is available to them. Which unsurprisingly, is the time available to all of us.
So why is it that some people manage to find the time to do the things they set out to do, while the rest of us languish about, complaining about “I’m too tired”, or “I just want to watch this show”, or any number of other excuses we tell ourselves to procrastinate.
We all get tired. When you have young kids and a partner and work full time, it’s amazing just how fast the day disappears. By the time you’ve managed to get the kids homeworked, fed, watered, washed, toothbrushed and in bed, you just want to flop on the couch with your significant other and vegetate while the TV plays barely watched in front of you. You crash into bed at some ungodly hour, only to wake up and repeat the cycle ad infinitum.
So how do you overcome the perpetual cycle of never doing anything to achieving something?
1. Be specific
It’s all very well to say “I want to be a famous writer!” That’s nice, lots of people want to be a famous writer, or a rock star, actor, or a myriad of other goals. But so often when you question them further, that is pretty much the extent of their dream. The “what” is blurry and the “how” is a nebulous idea.
So to refine the “what”, you must go back to the “how”. Try a little exercise. Use a sentence of the format:
I want to be <goal> by <doing> <concrete outcome>.
- <goal> is an astronaut, famous author, actor or whatever it is you wish to be;
- <doing> can be creating, writing, drawing, painting, playing, learning guitar, or whatever it is that you would normally do as a <goal>
- <concrete outcome> is the tough one. This is the actual thing you produce by <doing>. This could be a science fiction novel, a heavy metal album, a portrait of Elvis. It really doesn’t matter, and it isn’t up for judgment. It’s your goal, and if you want to do it, then own it.
This is where being specific comes in. If your initial set of <goal><doing> and <concrete outcome> aren’t still something you could start working on right now, then you haven’t gone deep enough.
It’s surprisingly hard to do this exercise. To have to dive down from the abstract to the detailed means starting to have to break the task into steps. Which of course, is our next point.
2. Break the goal into tasks
The outcome of the exercise from above is to help define what the steps that are needed to achieve the goal you specified. As eloquently stated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” This is an absolute, a truism. There are some people who manage to attain success by dumb luck, but using that as a success strategy is like wishing on a star. It’s just not going to happen.
A task needs to be considerably more detailed than “write a book” or “compose an amazing song.” You’ll get to that, but that is made of smaller elements. The size of the element is determined by the time you have to work on it, which will be covered in the next section, but unless it is granular enough to be something achievable, then you need to keep breaking it down until it is.
3. Allocate time to do the work
So you have a bunch of tasks worked out, you know what you want to do. But you just don’t have time to do them. This is because you haven’t given them the priority that they need to actually get done. And unless you assign them enough priority that they are important, then they will remain undone.
Set aside a specific length of time each day, preferably at the same time each day, to work on your dream. It can be whenever works best for you; first thing in the morning, last thing at night, while the kids are doing homework – it really doesn’t matter. If you can’t find a common time each day, then shift that duration to when it does work for you each day. Just make sure you give it that time, or your timeframe will slip out to forever.
4. Set a time frame
One of the most important aspects of fulfilling a goal is to set it a time frame. Make a plan. This can be revised as you start to work on your project and you have more information on how to estimate the amount of work you have.
I know I quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier, but his words are powerful, succinct and always true. Always. If you don’t define a concrete, tangible path with which to carry you to your goal, then you will never reach that goal. Set yourself milestones and work towards those. Otherwise, you will find yourself making no progress and wondering why.
5. Have realistic expectations
Of course, setting time frames and goals are all well and good, but if you don’t set realistic goals, then you will rapidly become frustrated and disheartened. If you set a goal of “I plan to be the most popular writer in the world by next Thursday,” then reality is likely to take a very big stick to your expectations. Understanding what is and what isn’t possible applies at both the macro (project) level and micro (task) level.
Your expectations need to be something tangible and achievable. If you try to set yourself a goal of “I’m going to sell more records than Elvis”, while that may happen, it’s not something you have direct control over (unless you plan to buy them all yourself!). Instead, setting targets of “I will finish my book by the end of August” and “I will write 300 – 400 words in this hour I have between now and cooking dinner” is something that you can realistically do.
Having realistic expectations leads back to the first point of being specific. Unless you are working towards a tangible goal with realistic timeframes, then you will toss it all in. Or even worse, is letting it slip away a piece at a time until the dream is gone.
6. Be persistent!
There are so many memes on the Internet about sticking at things. They may be inane and annoying, but truth is truth. If you’re not working on the thing you want to do, then you aren’t actually making progress. And if you aren’t actually putting priority on to your dream, then it’s not really your dream after all.
It will take time. Anything worth doing is going to require a significant, sustained effort over an extended period.
Sometimes you will want to chuck it in, sometimes you want to vegetate on the couch for a bit. And in all honesty, doing this occasionally is ok. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a session, just pick it up the next time and get on with it. Adjust timeframes as necessary, but keep them realistic and tight enough that you can see them.
Remember, that artist or author taking the world by storm has been at it for a very, very long time. Just because you’re seeing the performance doesn’t mean they didn’t do the rehearsals over and over and over.
“It takes 20 years to make an overnight success. ” – Eddie Cantor
Life is for living.