The worst way I waste my time is perpetuating some disconnected fantasy. Perhaps I'll finally make that hit application, becoming an overnight success that we all read about like that guy mailing potatoes. But I don't actually want that, or any of the other things I fantasize about. In some random moment, I may feel I want it. That feeling is fleeting and almost entirely disconnected from how I want to spend my time. I don't intend to do anything to become an overnight success. Intentions must last. An intention is persistent, durable direction that points towards a achievable outcome. This is important, because getting to an outcome is really, really hard.
Practice makes hard things easier, though. With practice, getting closer to intended outcomes gets easier. Practice requires deliberate conscious steps. By that I mean that when difficulties arise, and they will, every step along the way can be examined and improved upon. Without distinct steps it's ambiguous movement, and movement without direction is won't get you closer to your destination. Here's how I've broken out the steps to iterate and improve as I work towards my goals.
Step 1: Ask the right question
Having an intention isn't enough to deliver an outcome, no more than a turn signal will turn your car. This is not a new idea and people have written at length about better ways to succeed at our goals. The second of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is this, and sounds deceptively simple:
Habit 2. Begin with the end in mind.
What is the end? That's an outcome, and to arrive there we must understand and focus on that end before we even start. The outcome must be the top priority before any action. But what happens in between? Even if you know what you want, where do you start? There are two steps that must happen before taking any action: Intent and Motivation. I still quote that habit frequently, rephrasing into a powerful question:
What do I intend to do to get closer to the outcome I want?
Each emphasized word is one step in the path. This question helps connect motivation, ability and outcomes and the answer clarifies exactly what is intended. The best part of this question is it isn't about wholesale success. It's baby steps. Get me closer. When we sufficiently reduce the size of our intent and actions, our chances of success drastically improve.
Step 2: Get Motivation
Intent leads to motivation. Without motivation there are no actions, we won't even run out of gas. We can't even get started. Motivation is created out of belief and focus. If we don't truly believe we can succeed, motivation is absent. If we don't care enough about the outcome we certainly can't focus.
Motivation is important because it is the only way to create actions. We never act upon anything unless their is motivation to do so. Unfortunately, motivation can be subtle and dangerous. Without being consciously aware of our motivation we will spend our hours doing the unimportant activities that simply fill the time. Each time we scroll through Facebook, read Twitter, or mindlessly watch TV we're letting our motivation to not do anything win over our motivation to accomplish something bigger. Sometimes that's necessary, sustainability is important, but it should always be a conscious choice.
Intention and clarity help guide that choice, and reminds us to ask it frequently. It also ensures that our motivation is bite sized, so we don't flare up, burn bright, exhaust ourselves and go back to the way things were. Motivation is best in short bursts, coupled with an unshakable belief in success.
Step 3: Action!
Action and motivation are so tightly coupled. We can't act without motivation, and without action all the motivation in the world is useless. Motivation is a deep breath, it may feel good but it won't move any mountains. Every action we take slowly depletes our motivation in that direction. We can get little boosts when we see real progress towards a goal. If goals are too big, size them down so progress is always visible. This minimizes the depletion of motivation so action doesn't slow down.
With the right intention, fueled by motivation, every step we take does bring verifiable progress towards the goal. We always should be able to observe the path to success. If we can't, one of two things is happening: We're either going the wrong direction, or our intentions are too big.
Once we reach the goal our work is far from finished. We have a vision of climbing a mountain, and our first steps may only bring us to the foothills. This is the final step, to reflect and clarify intentions.
Step 4: Reconnecting Outcome with Intent
We've made it. Chances are the work is far from over. There is always something more, something bigger, something better. Do it. But follow this pattern. Identify where you are at, how you got there and what was easy and hard. What do you need to work on? What was the most surprising? What strengths did you use the most?
This final step is about acknowledging being better. Being one step closer to an ultimate goal feels great, and that should be used to clarify intentions and make course corrections. Set a new, or just slightly different intent, get more motivation (which is easier each time around) and take further action. Always recalibrate and acknowledge the changing environment before starting the cycle again.
Life is a cycle. If we don't pay attention to how we, and our environment, has changed we will waste effort on the wrong things or slide into boredom. We get better at things the more we do them, and not stepping up and stretching ourselves to higher aspirations leads to boredom and malaise. Step 4 prevents that and encourages a little higher aim.
Eventually we'll be so far along we'll feel out of touch with our beginnings. That's a good thing. Each step around this spiral we get better and better while also getting closer and closer to an ultimate outcome. That ultimate outcome used to be a fantasy, and now it is real life.