Note: This is a guest post from Mike Reeves-McMillan of Living Skillfully
I spent a lot of my life with no sense of progress.
Now, I didn’t say that I wasn’t making progress. In fact, of all the many jobs I’ve done – youth worker, book editor, technical writer, corporate trainer, systems analyst, business consultant and hypnotherapist – not one has been a waste or failed to teach me something important which I still use today.
But my sense of progress comes from what a friend of mine calls “retrohension” – comprehension that only occurs in retrospect. I had no plan.
Even now, I have only the most skeletal of plans, and it’s subject to revision at any time. I know from experience that life throws curveballs.
What’s more, I take this lack of planning into my therapy room. I’m a client-centred therapist, and I’ve adopted the motto, “No plan should survive first contact with the client.” Real people are complex, and what works for one won’t work for another.
So how do I work without a plan? There are five things I can think of that are better than a plan, and here they are.
1. A sense of purpose
Deciding what you want to achieve should come before any discussion on how to achieve it. All too often we start with what we can do or what we know how to do and then figure out what we want to do. That’s what I did after university – I had a degree in English (because I was lazy and that came easiest), and I didn’t want to teach, so I decided to be a book editor.
The most successful people turn that round the other way. They find their purpose first, and after that figure out how to achieve it – even if nobody else believes it can be done.
What is the thing you want to achieve more than anything else?
2. A direction
Once you have a goal, you automatically have a direction: Head towards the goal!
Of course, you may not know exactly what direction the goal lies in. So: Head in the direction that looks like it will take you closer to the goal than where you are now, and closer to the goal than the other possible directions. (Here’s where you also get that important sense of progress.)
I use a system I came up with for myself called “two-level goals”. I have big long-term goals that don’t change much, and in the shorter term I come up with smaller to-do-list-sized goals that contribute towards the big goals. (And if something on your to-do list doesn’t contribute to your goals – why are you doing it?)
What’s the next step towards the thing you want to achieve?
3. A moral compass
But wait. Not every direction is one you will ultimately be glad you walked down. And many times, you can figure out which paths not to take in advance, based on your own sense of what’s right. If you want to achieve world peace, yet the path immediately available to you involves harming people who get in your way… do you take it?
It’s important to be clear on your moral and ethical standards, and to stick with them. Otherwise, reaching your goals will be a hollow, self-betraying and disappointing experience.
What actions are you ruling out in advance?
4. Awareness of opportunities
If you have a plan that you’re following rigidly, your risk is that you’ll overlook opportunities to head in a new (and maybe better) direction. If you have a goal, though, and you’re pursuing it flexibly, any (ethically acceptable) path to that goal becomes available to you. You just need to keep an eye out, recognise opportunities when you see them, and be prepared to add them in to your short-term goals if they serve your long-term goals – or let them go if they don’t.
What opportunities have you been overlooking?
5. A range of tools and techniques
When all you have is a hammer, even if not everything you encounter looks like a nail, you don’t have much option but to treat it as if it is. To take the opportunities that arise, and to deal with the challenges on the way, needs skillful resourcefulness. And if you’re reading this, you have more access to more resources than all the great achievers of previous centuries. You just need to use them.
What life skills, tools, techniques and resources can you pick up to help you towards your goals?
One of Mike Reeves-McMillan’s key goals is to help people increase their skills and resources for dealing positively with life, finding purpose and reaching their worthwhile goals. One of his main tools for this is his blog, Living Skillfully: Change Your Life.
Photo by Kyle Kruchok