Keeping Your "I" On The Prize: How To Follow Your Heart

Often times we are too busy to be aware of the stirring of our own hearts directing us toward a particular course of action which will provide us joy. Being free of the "energy drains" and unnecessary commitments in our lives, we now have the best opportunity to understand what is moving us toward a particular direction. Then and only then are we able to take concrete steps toward achieving that which we desire. This action is the process by which we establish goals for ourselves.

Why do some of our greatest ideas come at unexpected times, like when we are in the middle of the shower or trying to fall asleep? Truthfully, these are not unexpected times at all but rather the very environment the brain needs to be creative.

When we are hard at work on something, we try to maintain diligent focus on the task at hand. During these time, our brain activates the attention filter which automatically filters all unimportant data for the sake of efficiency. While this is good for process oriented tasks, it is terrible for creativity. It is the day dreaming mode that disengages the attention filter, allowing the brain to see some of the most seemingly disparate ideas, creatively bringing them together in new ways. This is why many of our greatest ideas come under strange circumstances.

The Pursuit of Creativity Through Solitude

The pursuit of the essential life is about mining the world within so we can most fruitfully and joyfully engage the world “without.” To do so, we need to create a proper environment so the world we have seen, heard, tasted, touched and smelled may become the raw material for new creative endeavors.

If we are out to embrace engaging and inspiring goals for ourselves, we must make adequate room for intentional times of solitude. We need regular times of reflection to observe how well we have utilized the past days, weeks or months for the important things in our lives. Understanding these circumstances, that created for a less than ideal engagement, provides concrete resolutions to prevent such lapses next time. I highly recommend weekly thirty minute reviews along with one full day retreat per six months to do a larger self-inventory review with the intention of providing a framework for the next six months.

One caution about these times of solitude: disengage from everything you possibly can during this time. This means no smart phones, social media, online access, books or anything else. If you have the opportunity to break from a time of solitude, chances are you will take it. Don’t believe me? A study was done to determine how much enjoyment people received from being left alone with nothing to do. In these 11 studies, participants were asked to sit in an unadorned room from 6 to 15 minutes with nothing but their thoughts to entertain them. Unsurprisingly, when interviewed after the time of “self-reflection” it was a nearly unanimous opinion that the participants preferred doing something rather than sitting doing nothing.

One particular modification of this study, however, had some alarming results though. When given the choice to sit alone with only one’s thoughts or have the option to self-administer electrical shocks, the majority of the participants ended up choosing the electrical shock over being left alone. So, let’s re-address that self-confidence of which we spoke earlier about having your smart phone right next to you “just for emergencies” but vowing never to use it. I’m pretty sure it is much more appealing than self-administered shocks. So, put it away!

Now that we have set the time apart to review our life in both small and larger increments, it is time to engage the world of goal making. As Zig Zigler famously said, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” If we do not want our lives to amount to “nothing,” then we need to stop aiming at “nothing.”

So, what are your goals for the next week, month, and year? Don’t know where to begin? Here are four steps to create incredible, inspiring goals:

Brain Storm

Let’s pretend that you received a phone call from an attorney who represents your long lost uncle. He informs you that your uncle has passed away and has left to you ten million dollars. You hang up the phone in pure shock and excitement. Moments later, you receive yet another phone call, but this time it is from your doctor. That test you had done came back positive and unfortunately the news isn’t good; you have only ten years to live. How would you realign your life? What would you do? Spend a few hours thinking and journaling about all the things you would do. This can quickly become the raw material for some great goals in your own life.

Narrow your Options

As you begin to engage creatively with the scenario above, you may begin to see some common threads in your new life decisions. This may result in a number of different possible paths. Now, step out of the scenario and engage the 10-10-10 rule to narrow some of your options. For each idea that may come to mind both from the exercise above and any additional potential personal goals you have considered, examine each potential direction through this lens: how would you feel if you chose that path? How would you feel ten minutes from the moment you committed to that goal? How about ten months from now, and then ten years from now? Does the enthusiasm increase over time, decrease over time, or do you feel neutral? This will help prioritize your goals.

Playing it SMART

Now it is time to begin forming goals with some teeth. For instance, as you thought through the inheritance scenario, you may have realized that you really wanted to make these last ten years count, and more than anything you want to be as active as possible to keep up with every moment of your children’s lives. So, you form the goal to be as healthy as possible. Great goal; but it doesn’t have any teeth. As the goal stands, no way exists to verify or measure whether you are making good strides toward your goal, or whether you even met the goal. How do you measure “healthy as possible”? You can’t. To create a SMART goal, it must be Specific, Measurable, Appropriate, Realistic, and Timely (thus, the acronym SMART). The goal above is not specific enough nor does it specify a concrete action by which to reach your goal. The goal fails on the measurement scale without a way to measure success. As for appropriateness, there is not enough context to see whether it is an appropriate goal. A possible inappropriate goal would be someone who desires to summit Everest by next summer which is both specific and measurable. However, since he is a family man with many children to care for, it may not be appropriate. The last two indicators of a great goal are that a goal must be both realistic and timely. A realistic goal means, can it actually be done? For example, you decided to take up the sport of running for the first time, and with enthusiasm out pacing any realism, you decide to sign up for an ultra marathon for your first run, scheduled for six months from now. This is most likely not a realistic goal. Finally, while your goal may be specific, measurable, appropriate, realistic, it may not be timely. For instance, your goal is to launch a landing page on your website for your new business. It is currently January 1st and you have set the goal to launch your site on March 1st. All sounds good; the problem is that you are a CPA and this is the busiest season of the year. This is probably not the right time to set this goal and would be better suited for after April. Returning to the desire to be the healthiest you can be, a SMART goal would be to lose twenty pounds by that big Maui vacation on September 10th. You have a due date and have a way to concretely measure you progress along the way.

Organizing Your Goals

Now that you have your list of fun, inspiring and challenging personal and/or work goals, it is now time to group them according to roles or areas of responsibility. These could include health, family, marriage, recreation, career, work, community, spiritual life, education, relationships, etc. This is an important step that will make the final step much easier.

The One Thing

While it would be perfectly fine to stop at the organization stage and begin achieving as many goals as possible, it is not the most efficient way to begin. It can also be very overwhelming if you are looking at five or six areas of responsibility, each with many goals. The final level is to synthesize (if possible) and simplify. As you look at the goals for each area of responsibility, ask the question: “What is the one thing/goal that would make every other thing/goal in this area of responsibility either unnecessary or significantly less burdensome.” The answer may be a particular goal already in the list or a new one that synthesizes the others to some degree. For instance, I may be dealing with the threat of high cholesterol, dealing with being overweight, lacking energy to spend time with my children and feeling exceptionally stressed. Becoming healthy seems like a daunting task as there are so many fronts to fight. However, the one thing that might just make all these problems go away or significantly less stressful is to have a dedicated exercise regimen where I exercise five times a week by running for thirty minutes a day. Such an activity is proven to reduce stress, give more energy, helps in weight lose, and can lower cholesterol. What about the other stuff? Are we simply supposed to ignore all the other responsibilities of life that are outside our goals? Absolutely not! Our focus should always first be to tackle first our primary goals each day, but we should always reserve time to address our other responsibilities. To remain focused, split the remaining tasks responsibly into tasks that may be delegated to someone else, deferred to a later date, or set them aside if we find them ultimately unnecessary. If only it was as easy to create goals, with the disciplined life, and to fulfill those goals automatically. Unfortunately, a number of things can impede even our most motivated and inspired efforts. Next week, we will look at a surprisingly insidious fear that prevents many of us from following through with our goals and thus living a more essential life. See you next Wednesday!

What inspiring goals have you set out to accomplish this month and year?