Achieving Results Through Practice And Action

"Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It's not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad." — Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5

I've spent much of the past year thinking about the common guidance that the key to finding the perfect job is to identify what you are most passionate about and naturally do best. This has frustrated me for many years as a single burning passion has never been evident in my consciousness. I've taken assessments to identify my strengths, personality type, and ideal occupations, but none have led to my passion beginning to crystallize. Rather than any single interest or activity, I have always been fascinated by learning about a significant number of different subject areas.

After reading Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You, a new insight clicked for me. The gist of the book is that "working right trumps finding the right work." Rather than trying to discover some innate passion you should instead focus on mastering unique and valuable skills. Once you have built up your skills you can then invest them in acquiring control over your work and to identify a mission for your life.

In addition to a small number of interviews conducted by Cal Newport, there is a basis for this idea in the decades of research by psychologists such as Anders Ericsson and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as well as Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Ericsson and Csíkszentmihályi found that the people that enjoy their work the most and that see it as a calling are those who have invested the time and energy to become experts. Similarly, SDT identifies the three innate needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy, which seem to be satisfied by workers that stay in their fields long enough to master the associated skills, be given more control over their responsibilities, develop strong relationships with their coworkers, and have seen examples of how their work benefits others.

This year I resolved to abandon the search for the magic right job and to take a more deliberate and intentional approach to how I live my life. Even with this new insight and intention I felt there needed to be some structure and objective way to keep myself accountable. After reading Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit I also wanted this project to take the form of several new lifelong habits. Without new habits that become a regular part of my life, sustaining the new behaviors would be an ongoing chore. Much like the perennial New Year's resolutions that people abandon before February arrives.

A habit that many successful people attribute much of their success to is the deliberate setting and tracking of goals. I discovered the annual review processes described by James Clear, Chris Guillebeau, and Darius Foroux and used them as the basis to create my own approach to annual goal setting and review. I call it Achieving Results Through Practice And Action.

1. Setting the Environment

It starts by identifying some time to delegate or stop most of your daily tasks. For most of us, this means taking time off from work so that you can focus and think without interruption. This may be difficult to justify given how limited vacation or paid time off can be for many people, but a single day to invest in yourself is a small price to pay.

Although I am only in my first year of this new approach I found that taking two consecutive days off was necessary. I selected late December as a good time to reflect on the prior 11 months and plan for the upcoming year. Most businesses in my industry experience a slow down during December, so it enabled me to take the time away without neglecting any responsibilities or impacting critical operations of the company.

You'll want to find a quiet place to think each day that affords freedom from distractions. Some locations to consider include co-working spaces, libraries, and quiet restaurants or coffee shops.

2. Get in the Right Mindset

This is the only section I would say is optional, but my opinion may change in subsequent years. The idea is to start your mini-retreat by immersing yourself in the wisdom and experiences of great thinkers to get yourself in the right mindset for setting goals and strategy for the upcoming year.

I may change this list but for this first time I chose to read select excerpts or my personal notes from the following books:

  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • The Evolving Self by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

I would encourage you to think about those books you've read over the past few years that have had a profound impact on your worldview and especially any that you come back to repeatedly.

3. Review the Previous Year

Think back over the previous year and write about:

  1. What went well? Why?
  2. What did not go well? Why?

Try to come up with around 6 to 8 entries for each list. When you are writing about What went well? don't forget to include wins, learning, new experiences, and people you've met. This is an opportunity to show gratitude for yourself and acknowledge how far you've come over the past year.

When you have your two lists write about:

  1. What can I learn from each list?
  2. What can I improve upon?

This creates an opportunity to reflect on each entry rather than simply blazing through the list and setting it aside. In keeping with my own philosophy, I focus primarily on events I had some influence or control over rather than those I had absolutely no ability to prevent since these tend to be where I can learn the most.

4. Final Review of the Previous Year's Goals

I intend to go through this next year but since this is my first year I don't have any prior goals to review.

Retrieve and review your goals and strategy for last year. Make notes for each goal on whether it was achieved or not. Some goals won't be achieved because circumstances changed during the year, and they have become irrelevant. Others won't be achieved because you fell short.

5. Envision the Goals for Next Year

"We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day but underestimate what we can accomplish in a full year."

Begin the goal setting by looking towards the future and think about how the life you're living now is building towards a bigger mission. You may not yet have a life mission identified but the goals you set should align with the kind of person you want to be. One exercise that can be helpful is to imagine you are at the end of the upcoming year looking back on all the goals you accomplished.

I use 12 areas that I copied from this post by Chris Guillebeau, but you can adapt this list to meet your own:

  • Writing
  • Business
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Service
  • Travel
  • Spiritual
  • Health
  • Learning
  • Financial (Earning)
  • Financial (Giving)
  • Financial (Saving)

Review your list and think about specific goals in each area. I used a ruled index card for each area, but you can just as easily use a blank sheet of paper. Set 3 to 5 measurable goals for each area. Be realistic but don't think too small. There is nothing wrong with aiming big and coming up short, but if you perpetually set easily achievable goals you won't grow in the process. At this stage don't worry about execution yet.

6. Re-center Mindset

Take a break from focusing on goals to read more from your chosen books. It can often be very advantageous to allow your thoughts and ideas to interact and combine below the surface of consciousness. If you are fortunate enough to be able to take more than one day for this process this can be a good point to sleep on your plans. A good night's rest does wonders for creating a clear and fertile mind.

7. Verify Alignment of My Goals for Next Year

"A man who chases two rabbits catches neither."

Review the list of priority areas you want to work on next year and each specific goal you have set. Take some time to really critique each one. Ask yourself, "Are the choices I am making helping me to live the life I want to live?" and "Will these goals serve my family, community, or the world in the ways I wish to contribute?" Remove any goals that do not pass this second review.

8. Identify Strategy to Accomplish Goals

Setting goals that are meaningful and that you can commit to is a great start but without some strategy to turn them into reality you are setting yourself up for failure. As the saying goes, "Hope is not a strategy." Break down each goal by either:

  • Recording monthly, weekly, or daily habits that will lead to accomplishment.

or

  • Identifying a series of actions that, once taken, will lead to accomplishment.

Keep in mind that one of the best predictors of success is whether an objective is specific and measurable. It may be helpful to follow the SMART criteria when crafting your goals.

You'll need to come up with a way to keep track of the repeating habits. I use the Coach.me app but there are a variety of paper-based and electronic options. The same goes for tracking actions or milestones. I use the task management tool OmniFocus to record deadlines for each action. The important thing is to select an approach that you think you can stick with all year and that does not add a heavy burden to your day. If it requires too much psychic energy or time to maintain you may abandon it altogether and thereby lose track of your progress. Even more important is the loss of the small wins that serve to motivate you and encourage continued commitment.

9. Create Feedback Loops

Even before the new year begins set aside some time at the end of each quarter (Spring, Summer, Fall) for a quarterly review of your progress. Add reminders to your calendar for the quarterly reviews as well as a final review next December. At the end of the year you'll repeat this cycle starting again at Step 1. The idea is that this goal setting, strategy crafting, and review process becomes a lifelong habit.

Takeaway and Looking Forward

Maybe you did not grow up with an overriding passion that colors and inspires everything you do in your life. Maybe you weren't one of those mysterious few that had an "Aha!" moment where the perfect career that aligns with your innate passions suddenly became clear. If so, living a life always searching for your dream job can actually be a rather destructive force in your life. It leads to a state of confusion about what your passion is and job hopping trying to find the perfect fit rather than focusing on mastering unique and valuable skills.

A more positive and constructive life can be lived by realizing that the perfect job is a myth and that the vast majority of people who truly feel their work is a calling actually had to invest a significant amount of time and focus before reaching this state of mind. They first had to master the related set of skills, develop strong connections with those they interacted with, gain some autonomy over how they did their work, and stick with it long enough to see their work benefiting others in a meaningful way.

Consistently achieving goals and maintaining focus is not easy, so I recommend you take up the annual practice of setting goals and a strategy for achievement for the upcoming year. To keep yourself accountable and to serve as a feedback loop schedule regular reviews throughout the year. Whether you use the approach I outlined or one of the many other examples that can be found online I would encourage you to pick one and give it a try for a year.

I'm personally very excited about the potential of this approach that I'm committing to and will be recording my progress and reflections during the upcoming seasons.

Here's to a rewarding and productive 2017!