Why is it that so few people actually manage to accomplish their goals in life when there are dozens of talk shows and hundreds of books and articles that tell you the secrets of success? Is it really that difficult for one to achieve their goals? The answer to that question, like all great questions, is “It depends.”.
By far the most common obstacle to success is a poor self image. The thought “I cannot do this” is always the first step toward failure. You have to believe in your self, in your ability to succeed and accomplish great things. There is a viscous cycle that starts with your belief you cannot do a task which leads you to not doing the task, which in turn reinforces that you cannot do the task. How does one break this cycle? The best way is to develop a set of goals that lead up to the task you want to do, starting with simpler ones that are within your abilities and eventually lead up to things that are beyond your current abilities
For example, let us say you want to run a twelve mile marathon but you are fifty pounds overweight and have not exercised since school five years ago. You might begin with a set of goals as follows:
Next two months
Next two months
Looking at this plan you can see that it starts with something that is not very difficult and quite possible for almost anyone. By starting with something you can actually do right now, you are giving yourself realistic tasks that once you do them, you begin to build your self confidence. You begin to think “If I can do 30 minutes of aerobics, than maybe I can also do 30 minutes of aerobics and 30 minutes on the treadmill”.
There are two other key parts of the plan shown above: discipline and patience. The lack of discipline and patience are probably two of the other greatest reasons for plans to fail.
Human beings do not want to wait, they have no patience. If someone wants to be a marathon runner, they want to just wake up one morning and magically they are able to run 12 miles. No one wants to work at something for one or two years to achieve a goal, especially a goal that will not bring them financial rewards. This expectation of immediate success leads us to believe that if we cannot do something right now, we will never be able to do it. But, nearly everything takes time. Van Gough’s first drawings were not perfect - he struggled with proportion and other problems of drawing in the beginning. He worked constantly at it over several years and eventually he became a great artist. Even when a person is born with a gift, it still takes time to refine, improve and learn how to use the gift.
Discipline is also a very important part of success. You must keep working at something. In our plan above, it requires a commitment to go to the gym several times a week every week. If you want to achieve something, you must be willing to work at it. The greatest selling self help books are the ones that promise you success without effort because this is what we all want. But the truth is that success almost always comes out of hard work done over an extended period of time.
The problems with Plans
OK, I know, this is all obvious, right? So, why is it that if you are confident in yourself, create realistic goals, and have discipline, you still cannot achieve your goals? Most likely, the reason is that there is one fundamental flaw with any plan. All plans are created at one particular moment in time based on the circumstances that exist at that exact moment. Unfortunately for our plans, time is constantly changing the circumstances of our lives. Thus, the criteria we used to create our plan may not exist within a week or two weeks after we create the plans. As we used to say in the Army “The best battle plan is good until the first bullet is fired.”
This creates a real problem for human beings. Human beings feel secure when everything has been planned out and they know exactly what will happen in the future. Once we make the effort of creating a plan, we don’t want to change it because change makes us feel insecure. How often have you made a plan and continued following it even though you know the circumstances have changed and the plan no longer makes sense?
Plans must be fluid, constantly evolving and always make sense with the current circumstances. It is our goals that should remain the same over time, not our plans. So, we start with a plan like the one above. Once we get to the gym we might find out that after taking an aerobics class for two weeks that there is a Yoga class that is better for us and switch to Yoga classes. We may realize after a few weeks that the extra weight is preventing us from doing any real exercise and we have to start with weight loss first. Plans are nothing more than guidelines, directions that we are heading for in the future. The key to success is to create detailed plans for one to three weeks into the future, and very general plans beyond two to three weeks. Every two weeks reevaluate your long term plans, see if they still make sense, and let go of any plans that no longer make sense. Each morning evaluate the actions you are going to take according to your plan and make certain they still make sense. If they don’t make sense, reevaluate the short and long term plan. It is this fluid dynamic method of planning that allows people to achieve the most difficult goals, always adjusting themselves and correcting their course so they can achieve their goals.
Now, there is one thing more that has to be said. Sometimes, events in our lives do lead to major changes in the circumstances of our lives that make the goals we are trying to achieve no longer make sense. Just as we must reevaluate our plans, we also must periodically reevaluate our goals. One of the most difficult things in life is to give up on achieving a goal that we have already put much time and energy into accomplishing. We see this very often in both relationships and work. How often does someone go through years of college only to find that when they actually get to work in their field they hate the work but remain in the job? Unfortunately, society often considers it a failure if we worked for something for years and than give up on it, but, if we move on to another goal that we than accomplish it can be the first step in great success. It is just as important to reevaluate your goals as it is to reevaluate your plans. Goals should not change that often, but sometimes they just don’t make sense anymore and need to be changed. During any major life changing event, such as retirement, getting in or out of a relationship, moving, changing jobs, etc. you should reevaluate your goals.