If I were to have to pick the one largest problem I have getting things done in my life, it would be having too many priorities. Maybe you can relate … though I hope you can’t!
Roots of overcommitment
Part of the problem has to do with my personality: I love to consider new possibilities and think about new ways to do things, so I often come up with ideas that seem likely to pay off handsomely if I invest some time and effort. Though sometimes that has been the case and sometimes it hasn’t, usually it’s much easier to consider whether the idea itself is worthwhile than to consider whether or not it really fits in with my primary goal at that point in my life.
And I do mean “goal,” singular. We can adopt a lot of different priorities in our lives, but if we really want to achieve something difficult and effortful, like starting a new business or losing 50 pounds or learning Swedish from CDs, our chance of success plummets unless it is the only big goal we’re currently pursuing.
Why only one goal?
Accomplishing any big change in our lives means changing habits, and changing habits takes time (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), effort, attention, and thought. When we try to pursue more than one major goal at a time, all of these resources get divided among the goals, and this takes a difficult but doable process and makes it so overwhelming that few of us can possibly succeed. It’s as though we are trying to defend a city with a small army that should be just barely up to the job, but then divide our troops in two or three or more parts and send them to defend other cities. All the cities may be worth defending, it’s true, but in this kind of situation, all of them are likely to fall.
When it’s hard letting other goals go
While knowing this has helped rein in my enthusiasm for new projects, it hasn’t prevented me from going in too many directions at once. Ironically, writing this blog makes it more difficult for me to let go of multiple priorities: it’s hard to write about self-motivation and not feel as though you should be able to create it in all aspects of your life at once, even if what you’re writing is that this is an unsuccessful way to proceed.
And of course all of the different project I pursue do feel very important to me. It’s hard to look at any one of them and think that I should let it go, especially after I’ve put a huge amount of work into it.
Yet sometimes letting things go–or at least putting them away temporarily–is exactly the best thing to do. Even a goal that’s put aside can benefit from this, because instead of unending effort toward too many goals that fails to ever fully succeed, we can have efforts that succeed in getting us somewhere, and once we’ve reached a certain level–the new business is running smoothly and there are no immediate crises, or new eating and exercise habits have become second nature, or communicating in Swedish is going well–then we have the mental capacity, the time, and the focus to spend on something else, which might well turn out to be that goal we had to sideline to get things going.
But getting to that point, for those of us who are used to trying to juggle lots of new projects or priorities, is hard. My natural response to the idea that I have to cut back on projects is that all of my projects are too important to cut back on. Yet not setting some of these projects aside means that I’m only considering them important enough to half-try and then fail at. It may be painful to give up on the car being rebuilt in the garage, the new artistic effort that had so much promise, or on the professional development effort that promises a better job but takes too much time and feels too draining–but that’s exactly what we end up needing to do if there’s something else that really needs to take priority.
There are also things many of us do on an ongoing basis that really aren’t that important, and it’s very rewarding to experiment with not doing these. These may be things like participating in clubs or groups that don’t add much to our lives, watching TV, or spending a lot of time and effort on vacations. Many of these activities will be related to entertainment (or in some cases, just killing time), which sounds a bit as though I’m advocating a life spent having no fun, but in truth, the activities that are most enjoyable to us as human beings are often the ones that are the most rewarding, like helping out friends, engaging with our families, or doing something that you do very, very well.
However important existing priorities, even though they make demands on time and attention too, don’t need to be discarded to work on a goal. If you decide that the essential thing for you to do is to buckle down and really finish the renovations on your home, that doesn’t mean it’s time to ignore your spouse and children, stop paying attention to your job, drop out of your twice-weekly basketball games, or cut off communication with friends. These ongoing priorities are not goals in the same way that something that requires a change of habit and a significant new investment of time is a goal. While any or all of these things may slow down accomplishing a new goal, if they are already priorities in your life, they aren’t going to require new habits to develop on a large scale–and it is that brain-changing process of habit change that makes goals happen.
Photo by Auntie P