September 14, 2008

What Are You Setting Yourself Up For?

My friend Rhoda had told everyone about the health benefits of ginger, so it wasn’t too surprising when she came back from a weekend goal-setting workshop and said she had a plan to start selling ginger to the world. She even showed me the plan, 15 pages of circles, lines, and small handwritten notes. By Friday, though, she wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t know how to do the first thing on my plan,“ Rhoda said. The plan called for her to invent a new kind of gingerbread that she could feature on the ginger infomercial she would be making. This week, she was supposed to bake just any loaf of bread to get herself started, but she hadn’t been able to do it. She had a bread machine, but couldn’t find it. “I’ve looked all over the place,” she said. “It has to be there somewhere.” Maybe she could bake a loaf of bread in the oven, but that was something she had never done — and her best loaf pan had a casserole in it. Besides, she wasn’t so sure she could make money selling ginger in an infomercial. Infomercial products were supposed to sell for $50 or more — how could she do that with ginger, which you can buy in any supermarket for about a dollar? Maybe she would need to pick a different product. Sighing and deflated, Rhoda didn’t look like someone who would be accomplishing any of her goals over the coming weekend.

It would seem that success in life would depend on knowing what your goals are, but there is something that is more important, and that is setting yourself up for success. In fact, if you pick the wrong goals, you are setting yourself up for failure and frustration. And no matter how good your goals are, if you manage your life according to your goals, you are likely to make progress only on your good days, when you are feeling energetic and optimistic. But even without knowing what your goals are, you can set yourself up for success — and you can make progress every day, on bad days and good days alike.

Most people’s lives are so full of hassles that they know in advance that any goal they set is going to be a challenge. Something as routine as doing their annual tax forms could leave their heads spinning for days, and that’s even before they find everything they need and get started on the forms themselves. It’s hard to feel optimistic about your direction in life when everything you can think of doing involves some kind of hassle.

The key to success, then, is to get rid of the hassles — get set up for an obstacle-free approach to all the routine and predictable things you know you will want to do. When we talk about getting rid of hassles, this can include reprogramming yourself so that you don’t have an automatic negative reaction to problems and subjects that you know will come up in your life. It can mean learning specific skills so that you can do routine things smoothly.

But no matter what you want to do, getting rid of hassles means taking away whatever clutter is in the way. And that’s why I suggest clutter as the place the start when you’re ready to make something of your life.

If you have clutter, it gets in the way whenever you are trying to do anything. When Rhoda couldn’t find her bread machine, it had to be hidden among many other possessions she wasn’t using. She would do better to set her ginger infomercial goal aside to focus on clearing away the clutter so that she would have space to work with and a clear path to whatever equipment and supplies she might want to use. After a few months of progress on the clutter front, she would be ready to spring into action. Then, baking a loaf of bread wouldn’t have to be a one-week goal — she could do it in the five hours it actually takes. And if she changed her mind and decided to pursue a different goal, she would be ready to do that too.

In truth, you can have no large goals at all and still move your life forward every single day. It might seem that you need goals to give your life direction, but the direction of your life never actually comes from goals. Your direction comes from your actions. If you have all the right goals, but you are taking the wrong actions, you are still moving in the wrong direction. But if you take action every day to remove hassles from your life and set yourself up for success, you can be sure you are moving in the right direction, whether you know what your goals are or not.

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