How many of you have goals that you can’t seem to get yourself to focus on?
They might be professional, personal, getting things done around the home. You know that you “want” to do them, but you just can’t consistently get yourself to take action.
I know that’s a problem for many of us because I know few people who it isn’t a problem for, and because many of you keep telling me it’s a problem.
This weekend I did a call with a member of our community.
Some time ago he’d reached out to me about his grandest vision for his career and life, and although he’s too junior to be a client, I jumped on the phone and gave him some pointers.
He’s moving, he’s making good progress on his goal, but some days when he sits down eager to get things done, he finds himself stuck.
He knows the things he wants to get done, but, well, he can’t get himself to do them.
The Problem With Doing What You “Want”
Often people assume it’s easy to do what you want, when the truth is the opposite.
After all, if it were easy, why would the vast majority of us humans spend our lives slaving away doing what we “need” to do?
Doing what you want takes will and skill that doing what you “need” never requires.
If you have a big project at work that you “must” get done, how hard is it to get yourself to show up every day and work on it?
Pretty easy, right? You might not like it, but just like in school, if you don’t, you flunk out.
Doing what you want is different.
You likely have hundreds of things that you say you “want” to do, but until push comes to shove (like doing your taxes), most of them you will never do.
That’s why dreams fall by the wayside. And people die with long bucket lists.
There’s nothing hard about dreaming. It’s waking up every day, and working towards your goals that prevents 90% of humans from ever having them.
The Problem With Goals
Often people from my world lament that the vast majority of us humans fail to have goals, when it’s not their fault.
Although it’s universally suggested that goals are a “good thing,” set wrong, goals can create enormous pain and ruin our lives.
By definition, goals remind us of things that we think are “missing” in our lives. For most people who set goals wrong, just having a goal is a reminder of that unmet “need.”
When you set your sights on a massive goal that you don’t know if you can achieve, what happens in your brain?
Does it get you excited? Perhaps. But, what about if you work away on it for the next 5 years and you still don’t see any progress, how would you feel about that?
Or, what about if your goal is so lofty that you have no idea what to do, let alone whether you can achieve it or not?
There aren’t many of us humans who can keep taking action in the face of that type of uncertainty.
Instead, the brain is more likely to create feelings that our society labels fear, overwhelm, anxiety, depression, and so on.
If every time you think about sitting down to make progress on your goal, you trigger these types of feelings, well, then, how wouldn’t you be stuck?
How Do You Solve These Problems?
Over the last couple of months I’ve written extensively on topics like this, and my bet is that many of you already have ways that you would solve our friend’s problem.
You might pull out the daily routines, structure your day, and really challenge yourself to do those things you’ve committed to do. You might roll out one of my favorite tools, The House of Flow, and use it to get yourself absorbed in the task.
Putting these and any tools together, you have plenty of potential solutions, and here I want to share with you a way I brought some tools together for him.
See, this is something that, shockingly, is mostly absent in the world of personal development—it’s “personal.”
This means, the solutions that are right for me, you, or anyone else are different. What gets me focused and cranking may be quite different to what gets you going, and what matters most is that you build your own approaches that work for you.
In the case of our friend, I walked him through these six tools:
Tool 1: Change the goal
As we discussed, a problem with massive goals is that, with “all that work” to do, and the enormous uncertainty around achieving your goal, it can be hard to get yourself to take action.
Yet, those things our society labels as anxiety, overwhelm, fear, depression, and so on, are not mysterious problems in the brain (if only the world of psychotherapy could figure that out!), but merely the result of what we focus on.
If your brain perceives your huge and meaningful goal as an endless amount of “work” that requires a “ton of effort” and faces a high likelihood of failure, well, then it’s obvious why the brain might resist it.
Hence, you want to change the structure of your goal.
The strategy to fight multiple attackers is to prevent them from attacking all at once by circling or lining them up, and breaking one man at a time.
Similarly, break down your goal into a series of small goals that you focus on sequentially. As you keep knocking down dominoes, you build that momentum of success that keeps pulling through your next actions.
Although many experts seemingly think that’s a complete solution, it’s only a small part of it. That’s because the problem you’re facing isn’t “in the goal” but “in your head.”
Tool 2: Get a tool
If you’re building a house you need tools. And to get yourself to change you need the same.
A tool for conditioning the physical body is a boxing bag, and the tool I shared with our friend is one that he can hit just as hard all day every day.
A reason I chose to do a call with him was that I wanted to create an audio recording for him.
I didn’t just want to throw a bunch of ideas at him, but instead wanted to leave him with a tool that he could use on his own.
These ideas you’re reading, he has a 15 minute audio recording of. And on those days where he finds himself stuck for action (and every other day he just wants to get better) I suggested that he listen to that recording, and keep moving himself in the right direction.
Truth is—this is one of my not-so-secret weapons. Over the years I’ve created thousands of such recordings for myself to constantly (gym, driving, walking, in cabs, watching movies, everywhere) recondition my thinking for doing what I want.
You want to do the same. It might not be an audio recording. But you want a tool.
Tool 3: Stop asking why…
A buddy of mine who has been stuck for action was told by a number of real deal “experts” that he just needs to get in touch with his “why?”
Now, you’ve seen me write about the crucial importance of knowing why your goals matter to you, and this is one of the most powerful teachings in personal development, but it’s also only a limited teaching. (somewhat of a beginner’s heuristic)
Nobody asked Jesus why. People who are truly compelled don’t need to wake up and remind themselves why. And, often, those who do, find that “why” gets them even more stuck.
Why? The problem is that from the emotional state of being stuck, the why simply isn’t a strong enough “tool.”
Most single men (and some married ones), if given the chance to seduce a beautiful and famous celebrity will never, ever approach that woman. Their biology sure as heck has a strong enough why, but insecurity and fear of rejection for most men is a much, much stronger “why not.”
Moreso, if a problem of lofty goals is that they can lead our brains to create sensations we might label as fear, overwhelm, anxiety, depression, and so on, then, surely by reminding yourself of how important this huge goal of yours really is, you’re becoming more stuck.
Instead, you want to come back to a much simpler why—why do I choose in this moment to become absorbed in doing what I have decided to do?
Put aside for a moment that big why, and simply come back to the feeling you get from getting something important done right now. That’s your strongest why.
Tool 4: Change your emotional state
A lot of the time when we’re trying to get ourselves to do something, we find ourselves stuck in a crappy internal dialogue.
One part of our brain says, “I really want to do this” or more likely, “just fucking do it.” The other part, which is in fact in control, simply doesn’t “feel” like doing it (notice this distinction between the thinking and feeling “minds.”), and like an unhappy marriage inside our own heads, we fight back and forth.
Then, some time after having been stuck, now feeling guilty for having not made progress, we beat up on ourselves even more, which of course only makes us feel worse, and likely leads us to even more avoiding.
You want to go the other way.
Instead of thinking about how awful it feels to be stuck, you want to do everything you can to imagine how it feels when you are moving. And instead of sitting at the front-end of the task, thinking about what needs to get done, you want to bring forward the amazing feelings of what it’s like to be fully immersed and how it feels to have already gotten it done.
That will get you a long way, but there’s something more.
Thinking about this stuff in your head might get you moving, but the absolute best way to change how you feel is… as you guys know… with your body.
Ask yourself, how great will it feel to get it done? Not just the words, but, really, how does it feel? Are you punching the air? Saying “Yeah?” Like a soccer player jumping into the arms of his team mates?
Notice here that I didn’t suggest you tap into the emotional state of achieving your goal. This “end-state energy” can be too big and too far away that the fear, overwhelm, anxiety, and other crap will too be triggered. Instead, attach your good feelings to getting done what you’re doing now, the “process state energy.”
Now do it. Literally, be that lunatic sitting at your desk pumping your hands in the air, fired up about what you’re sitting down to do.
Tool 5: Mental rehearsal
A reason I got on the phone with our friend is because I see a young man who is charging hard after a big goal that near everyone in his business is too scared to chase, and I want to support that.
His problem is that, after working 12 hour days during the week, he’s finding that on Saturdays and Sundays when he really wants to focus on his big goal, he’s getting stuck.
See, his problem isn’t every day, just a couple of days a week. At his job, it’s easy to do what he “needs” to do, it’s just on the weekend, he’s finding it hard to get himself to do what he “wants” to do.
One thing I suggested to him was that burnout is real, and he needs to be thoughtful about his limits, but, to be honest, we also know that he simply won’t win “only” working 5 days a week. But he does want to become as effective as he can be, by getting clear on the 20% of tasks that truly drive 80% of his results.
Yet, what really matters here is that he give his brain a new map. Having had enough weekends where he was stuck making progress on his dream, his brain had come to “generalize the problem” (e.g. “this always happens”), when instead he wants to generalize the solution.
Every night before bed, and especially on Fridays and Saturdays, ahead of his old stuck days, I suggested that he run mental movies of diving into his goals and being exactly how he wants to be.
Honestly, if you do this, and really get your emotions engaged, it’s near impossible to remain “stuck.” And, simply over time you will build a new map, where you’re naturally being as you choose to be.
Tool 6: Just do it
Look, when it’s said and done, if you can’t get yourself to do what you “want,” then just stop thinking about it… and do it!
A buddy was telling me about a cliff dive that he did in Europe some years ago. The rest of his crew had chickened out on jumping from the highest ledge. He just walked up there, and without a second’s thought, jumped.
He knew that if he contemplated any longer, he would talk himself out of it.
It’s the same as running, writing, and every other type of resistance we face. While it can seem hard to get ourselves moving, once we get beyond all that internal bickering, and just get absorbed in the task, it can feel like heaven.
Our job is be masterful at guiding ourselves through the gates.