He who wants to do everything will never do anything.
Dreams are necessary to sustain us and allow us to see what is possible. Dreams create feelings of exhilaration. But are dreams enough? Dreams without progress create frustration, anxiety and resentment. It’s no good to see the good life without being able to participate.
To make real progress towards any goal in life you have to deal with specifics. You have to have specific goals and take specific action within a specific time frame. If not, you have chosen to disregard the power of focus. If you dream of being rich without any clarity or precision, you will probably just fantasize about wealth all your life without any palpable progress. Having a specific goal in mind (e.g. save $1,000 by the end of the year), dramatically increases the probability of success. If you are living your life without specific goals, you have made a commitment to aimless floundering rather than the pursuit of excellence and achievement. It’s important to write down your specific goals. It helps you clarify what you want and it’s harder to ignore written goals. Mental goals just don’t feel as psychologically binding; we are more serious about written goals. In the early fifties, a study was undertaken at a prestigious university to evaluate the success of a specific graduating class. Twenty years later in follow up interviews, it was discovered that the 3% with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97%.
Why are written goals so effective? All of our personal history and living experiences exist in our memory. We only have access to a very small percentage of that knowledge or “knowing” in the waking conscious state. Methods exist (hypnosis, dreams, etc.) that help us delve deeply into the subconscious or unconscious realms and retrieve experiences. Specificity provides the focus and precision that allows us access to more knowledge and relevant past life experience. It allows the subconscious to marshal seldom used resources (forgotten memories and experiences) to assist you. Just remember you are smarter than you think you are. It’s learning to define what we want in concrete, specific terms that allows us to access that “hidden” knowledge.
The clarity and precision provided by specific and targeted thinking is also beneficial in monitoring and evaluating progress. I constantly examine my life searching for adjustments or fine tuning that can help me enjoy my life more fully and align my daily living strategies with my dreams and goals. I want to stay on track and not waste time and energy.
I have a criterion for successful living and employ a feedback mechanism to evaluate how my life is working. I use two perspectives to view and manage my life. The overall general evaluation is done at a macro level. The specifics are managed at a micro level.
At the macro level, I have 4 indicators that signal to me how my life it working. They are like the red light in your car that begins to blink indicating that you are low on oil and need to take immediate action. When one of these 4 indicators begins to blink, I feel a sense of urgency that compels me to pay attention, get in touch with my feelings and gain awareness about what is going on:
- Serenity or Anxiety Indicator – Whenever my serenity is diminished, I want to understand why I’m allowing it to slip away. I don’t mean temporary disappointment or momentary fleeting feelings of anger, fear, etc. If I’m out of kilter for more than couple of hours, I want to know what’s causing my prolonged anxiety and take steps to remedy it.
- Lifestyle Indicator: I lead a fairly healthy life combining moderate exercise with sensible eating habits. If I catch myself getting a candy bar out of a vending machine at 3:00 in the afternoon, I know (red light flashing) that there is some stress or worry that I’m not handling properly.
- Enthusiasm or Depression Indication: Kathy and I are always saying, “life is good”. When you believe that life is indeed good, you can take on the day with enthusiasm. If I am not up and going through the day with enthusiasm, I have the awareness to recognize this and I’ll take immediate action to alter my emotional state. Temporary low moods are normal and are experienced by all. I’m talking about prolonged feeling of the blahs or mild depression. I know nothing good ever comes of depression.
- Creativity Indicator: We are all highly creative. When answers to life’s problems are not forthcoming or alternatives never enter the mind and I’m feeling stuck; I know there is something blocking my creativity. I will do exercises to stimulate my mind and get the creative juices flowing. Creativity is to some degree a learned skill and can be jump started and sustained.
I have learned (the hard way) the value of quickly identifying when non-productive and energy-draining mental states occur. Developing awareness of these emotional states allows me the option of responding quickly and choosing strategies to change how I feel. For many, being stressed out, worried, giving away their serenity or not using their creativity skill to problem solve has become a depressing, expected way of life. These people do not routinely check in on how they are feeling and have no criteria as to whether they are experiencing life the way they wish to.
At the micro level, I try to manage all aspects of my life with a specific criterion that tells me whether that particular component is working satisfactorily. I have listed some areas of my life and the criteria that I used to judge how well they are working:
RELATIONSHIP WITH MY WIFE: Out of sight, out of mind (except for thoughts of love). When I’m with my wife, I want to thoroughly enjoy her company. When I am teaching or socializing with my friends, I want to be fully present. If thoughts of an earlier argument (lets call that a spirited debate) I had with my wife begin to seep into my consciousness, I feel that our relationship isn’t working optimally. The problem needs to be resolved quickly. I don’t want to carry around lingering resentments in a passive aggressive way.
RELATIONSHIP WITH MY CHILDREN: This is effective but not a fun one to think about. I ask myself how would I feel if something happened to one of my kids. Obviously I would feel a lot of pain and grief because I love my kids. If I also had feelings of guilt when I asked this question, this tells me that there is some unfinished business. There is something I could be doing and I’m not doing it. It might just be that I’m taking them for granted and I need to call them on the phone and tell them that I love them. This is a wonderful criterion to use because it allows a second chance and affords me the opportunity act while there is time. If I feel no guilt when asking this question, then I’m satisfied with my role in the relationship.
VOCATION/JOB: This is an easy one. I can’t wait for every day to start. My philosophy is do what you love and the money will follow. When my passion for an activity wanes and it becomes drudgery, I honor my existing commitments and phase that activity out of my life and pursue my current interests and passions.
LIFESTYLE: Is it reasonably healthy and also enjoyable? I try to build types of exercise into my life that I truly enjoy. Walking always brings my enjoyment. Running or using a treadmill doesn’t work for me. I have always wondered about the priorities of people who exercise on a treadmill and then drive two blocks to the corner grocery store to pick up a quart of milk. I eat healthy and maintain a low-fat diet most of the time. This is easy when dining at home or having a quick lunch at Subway. When special occasions arise or I’m dining out with my wife at a nice restaurant, the healthy eating has to be balanced with enjoyment and that might include a calorie-laden dessert. It’s all about balance and finding a lifestyle in which feelings of deprivation are kept to a minimum. If I always ate healthy and never allowed for celebration, I would feel like a martyr rather than a person who is enjoying life. Martyrdom has never worked for me; striving for balance between enjoyment and health is for me the key to long term success.
FRIENDS: People are generally either nutritious and good for you or toxic and bad for you. You can tell by how people make you feel. There are people that make you feel good, support you and bring out the best in you. These are the people you want to associate with. If someone’s presence always triggers some negative emotion (like fear, worry, anger, insecurity, hopelessness, frustration, etc.) that’s a toxic person for you. I make it a rule to seek out nutritional people and avoid toxic people. Ask yourself some specific questions to determine whether it is in your best interest to either begin or continue the relationship:
- Does this person energize you?
- Does this person make you laugh?
- Does this person motivate and inspire you?
- Is this person a good listener?
- Does this person allow you to be yourself?
READING: Is it fulfilling and rewarding or are you just killing time? I used to read two newspapers in the morning, read Time and Newsweek and listen to McNeil Lehrer (an hour-long news show) Monday through Friday. I realized most of this was done by habit rather than for enjoyment. I was getting the same news 5 times and 90% of what was being reported was negative and didn’t contribute to my life in a positive way. I awoke and realized my time could be put to a more joyful use.
I love to read and I knew that breaking the habit of reading stories with negative content would not be easy. Abruptly stopping a bad habit creates a void that increases the possibility of a relapse. It’s a much more effective and easier strategy to replace a bad habit with a good habit.
I now limit myself to reading the sports section in one paper in the morning. I no longer read Time or Newsweek and I watch McNeil selectively. To fill the vacuum created by this reduced reading, I asked my wife, who is a librarian and knows my reading tastes, to help me out and to make sure that I always have a pile of good books next to my reading chair. In the morning you will now find me engrossed in a good book rather than mindlessly and routinely reading the newspaper. If you enjoy reading, a good practice is to immediately start another book after finishing a good read. This habit will assure that you will always be in the middle of a good book; one of life’s greatest pleasures for a reader. To paraphrase a Karl Malden credit card advertisement “don’t leave home without a good book”. I carry a good book with me and read whenever unexpected delays create down time. I don’t have to read a two-year-old Reader’s Digest with the cover torn off while waiting in the doctor’s office.
ENTERTAINMENT: When “having fun,” ask yourself if you are truly enjoying yourself. Determine whether you are doing the activity for pleasure or out of habit. I have a friend who constantly complains about his Sunday golf outing with his “friends.” He has been playing golf every Sunday with the same foursome for many years. It no longer brings him joy, it’s a habit that he hasn’t examined closely and tried to break. How many things do we do that we tell ourselves are recreational and yet they are more obligatory? This woman’s insight beautifully describes the problem: “It’s amazing that I have not given thought to rewarding myself before. The usual ‘reward’ I give myself is something I really don’t want, like having another drink or going out with people whom I have absolutely nothing in common with. These are really punishments. Yet I tell myself they are treats.” Develop the awareness to examine the activities that you do for entertainment and if they aren’t enjoyable, begin to branch out and try other activities that you sense might be enjoyable.
ENVY VERSUS ACCEPTANCE: Envy is one of those feelings that has gotten bad press. I use envy in a positive way to examine my life for feelings of deprivation. If something triggers envy in me, then further examination is required to see if there is something missing in my life that I want and what do I need to do about it.
Kathy and I went several years to visit friends at their summer lake home. It’s a beautiful house overlooking a scenic lake. Our friends have saved and worked many years to create the retirement home of their dreams and they feel blessed with their new lifestyle. I am happy for them but I feel no envy. I am not a boater, fisherman or swimmer and I wouldn’t be willing to make the sacrifices they made to build their dream house.
I have another friend who lives a very diversified life, travels a lot, is constantly exploring new endeavors and starting new businesses. Whenever I’m around him I pick up on his energy and feelings of excitement and I become restless. I am envious of his lifestyle. I used this feeling to tell I need to do more experimentation and to take on more projects and try more new things.