Actualizing your goals (part 1): conservation is key

Ever been so busy you can’t get anything done? So many of us find this paradoxical scenario a frustrating reality. Maybe you have identified a fulfilling and meaningful goal, but so many other things are interrupting your time and energy, you make agonizingly slow forward progress. Or, even worse, you are so tied up into focusing on tasking that you have no time or mental space to devote to even knowing what your real life goals are. This is the first of a 2-part series on ways to gain traction with your goals by identifying and addressing sources of inefficiency and entropy.

Let’s start with entropy–the things that drain your momentum and focus. Most of the time it isn’t that we are lazy and unmotivated, but rather that we are being sapped by commitments that are not in line with the fulfilling path. Successful people are good at saying ‘no’ to things that derail and diffuse their goal-focus and targeted effort. They are judicious about where they put energy and they guard time and mental space effectively. This is because having forward momentum on a positive course is about knowing when to push forth effort and when to hold back, when to commit to a task and when to take a pass. Trying harder, taking on extra projects, accepting assignments and doing more to convenience others does not always lead to progress with meaningful goals. Indiscriminately doing things just because it conveniences and pleases others can be a fast track to nowhere. Successful people know this and are able to make the distinction between what gets them closer to a goal and what gets them farther away.

One big source of entropy is when we place the accommodation of other people’s goals over the accommodation of our own goals. So how do we get stuck in a cycle of giving excessive amounts of energy away? In a nutshell, this happens when there is an imbalance of social currents. In every moment, you must navigate the ‘inward current’ (your own wants and needs) and the ‘outward current’ (the wants and needs of others). A thousand times per day you must decide whether to act on your own behalf or whether to act on the behalf of someone else. Navigating the social current can be tough because what you need will often interface and conflict with what those around you need. Bottom line, if you tie up all your time and focus doing what everyone else wants you to do, there will be nothing left to propel you toward a fulfilling life course. Then you find yourself exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed and disappointed, stuck living other people’s agenda. Of course, no one wants to be selfish and unhelpful, but fear of appearing as such leads us to   overcompensate to the point that saying ‘no’ is like eating broken glass. So the first step is to challenge the negative labels you put on yourself every time you choose your agenda over the agenda of someone else. A good way to see a different perspective is to turn the tables. “Would it be OK for her to say ‘no’ if she were me?” If yes, then it is probably acceptable for you to say ‘no’ as well.

Another way to achieve balance is to examine the lens through which you view other people to whom you drain energy. Is it a bit too rosy? Do you need a healthy dose of cynicism? Here, I’ll loan you some of mine– A hard fact to accept is that most people are not very judicious about what they ask from you. Most people will allow you to accommodate them as much as you are willing to accommodate them, even to the point that it is having profoundly negative consequences for you. Here’s the real kicker–the more you accommodate others, the worse it feels to say ‘no’. You become even more worried that they will feel negatively toward you for refusing to help, you feel even more sure that everything will fall apart if you aren’t there to shoulder other people’s burdens. Sustaining an imbalance between your needs and the needs of others tends to redouble the very beliefs and feelings that create the imbalances in the first place. People ask even more of you as you over-accommodate them, and the more you give, the more guilty you feel for not giving more. This makes you less likely to refuse their requests in the future, and the cycle continues. The biggest trap of all is the one you don’t even know you are in.

To actualize your fulfilling life course, pull back sometimes and don’t flood yourself out to the never-ending requests from other people. Remember to be mindful of your own inappropriate guilt. Rethink the looming catastrophe you imagine will result from you saying ‘no’. Be judicious in your giving. Save some you for you.

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