I also recorded a podcast version of this post! Check out Episode 32 at the links below.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being interviewed for my favorite podcast, Clarity on Fire! The episode went live on Oct 14th! You can check it out here: https://clarityonfire.com/7-life-decisions-jamie-hillman/
Before I chatted with Kristen, she had sent me over a few topics to think through to prepare for our conversation, and there was actually one question that we didn’t get to talk about during our conversation because we were so busy talking about a lot of other great things. But, I wanted to share it with you here.
The question was, “What advice do you have for someone trying to achieve a big goal, like writing a book?”
When I was thinking through how I would respond to that, I really focused on a specific type of goal. These goals are distinct from functional goals or goals that are meant to serve a transactional purpose. Those, for example, are goals like getting a new certification at work just because it’s required to get a promotion or a goal to track your food so you can hit your protein intake goals. Those aren’t really what we’re talking about here.
They’re also distinct from goals that are purely external. I used to joke that I was dead-set on making a 30 under 30 list, and while I’d still be open to that (and I have 2.5 more years to make it happen), that’s not a goal that I have any sort of control over.
We’re talking about soul-goals. We’re talking about the things that you wanted because you simply want them, and to pursue them means becoming vulnerable and to risk exposing this part of your soul. These are also the goals that won’t stay quiet. They will drive you crazy if you aren’t working on them. These are the things like making a big career jump or starting your own business; writing a book or creating another piece of art to put into the world; starting a family; making a lifestyle change like pursuing FI or living in another country for a few months each year.
I have 3 parts to my answer: (1) lean into a mindset of inevitability, (2) have a plan but follow your flow, and (3) take small consistent steps that are ugly and messy
1. Develop a Mindset of Inevitability
This mindset means that you consider your goal as something that absolutely is going to happen. When you think about your goal, when you talk about your goal with other people, and when you are working toward your goal, you have the conviction that it will absolutely come to fruition.
A major shift happened for me when I stopped thinking “Maybe I will write this book” and “I’m not sure if I’ll actually finish it” and started thinking instead: “This book will be fully written and published and existing in the world.”
Embracing the inevitability of my book’s publication was really freeing. All the energy that I spent weighing the thoughts of “maybe I can’t do it” and “what happens if I don’t finish it?” was suddenly freed up. I just knew that it was going to happen, so I didn’t have to worry anymore about contingencies. That gave me a lot of peace to continue working on it from a place of ease and contentment.
This mindset is not related to time. I wasn’t saying to myself “I will absolutely publish this book by this particular date” which would push me into a state of forcing it to happen before it was ready.
It also isn’t specific to the how of getting it done, nor is it a guarantee of anything external. I couldn’t say that it was inevitable that my book would be a best seller or that I’d make thousands of dollars during launch week because those were outside of my control. I just committed to the fact that I absolutely would achieve my goal one day.
There is a part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love that reads:
“My thoughts turn to something I read once, something the Zen Buddhists believe. They say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into a tree. Everybody can see that. But only a few can recognize that there is anther force operating here as well-the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born.”
I love this visual so much because it speaks to this concept of longing. Clarity on Fire has a great episode where they talk about this quote and the whole idea of what desire is. When I think about it, I have to consider that of all the goals in the world to set, I picked this one; sure there are logical pieces to it and I can say that I picked it for specific reasons but I mostly set this goal because I wanted to. I wanted to write a book. And once I decided I wanted that, I put reason and logic around it to articulate it to others.
So if you have one of the big, soul-goals that you’re after, you have this internal longing that you feel. You feel that force pulling you forward. In some ways, you’re surrendering to that feeling. You are making peace with it by saying, “Yes, I hear you. I agree, it will happen.” Of all the things you could feel desire for, you have it for this one thing. That is significant. That means something. I like to believe that because you have that desire, that means you have everything it takes to make it a reality, and if you choose it, it is inevitable.
By following this desire, you are working with this longing; you aren’t going against the current of the evolution that your future self so badly wants to bring you into. So that’s why this is the move of flow, not force.
Okay, so that was the first one, and the most theoretical. Let’s talk practical now.
2. Have a plan but follow your flow
The best way to set yourself up for success when pursuing a big goal is to set out a plan for yourself. When I was writing my book, my outline was a life saver.
When I would sit down at my laptop in the morning and ask the question “What should I write about?” that’s where my outline was critical. I had stubbed out the chapters, identifying the high-level topics and the two sides, and then as much additional information as I could, like subtopics, relevant stories or exercises that I wanted to include in that section.
I mostly followed the order of the outline and once I started working in one part, I tried to stay there until I had a first draft, but there were some days when I wanted to write something other than what was next in the outline. So I would write that instead! I could save it in a separate document until I was ready to fully devote my attention to that part of the book.
This is what I mean by having a plan, but following your flow: having a plan means that every day that you set out to work on your goal, you have something that you can work on. You are never starting from scratch. But also, if you feel like doing something different that day, you aren’t bound to the plan.
This is certainly true for things like half marathon training also; you’ll want to have a running plan that tells you what days to run what number of miles, but if there’s a day that you don’t want to do what’s planned, you can always change it. That’s the idea of flow over force.
Flow, not force
What I have found to be true is that nothing great or truly of-your-soul comes from a place of force. If you find yourself skipping out on your plan multiple times and wondering if you should just force yourself to follow through on it, there could be a few things happening.
- One, this might not actually be a soul-goal. In my experience, if this is something that you really really want, and you have embraced that mindset of inevitability, you will come back to that idea. You’ll return to your outline, you’ll put back on your shoes, you’ll pick up the paintbrush again. You will feel the pull towards your goal, your creation, your project that your future self is helping you with.
- Two, you’ve figured out something better than your plan, and you should do that instead. I find this a lot with my writing; if there’s a concept or a story that I just can’t bring myself to write, that means I shouldn’t force myself to write it. It’s likely that there’s a better way to talk about it, or maybe I’m not meant to be talking about that right now. If I can’t find the words, maybe they aren’t meant to be found. Instead, some of my favorite creations, ideas, and writings, have all happened with the fervor of “I really want to write this right now.” That’s flow. And, I’ll say again, your best work will never come from a position of force.
Make a Plan, then Focus on Creation
Start with some sort of plan for yourself to achieve this goal. Outline incremental steps or ideas to expound upon later. By working on this first, it helps you stay focused later on the doing and the creation itself.
Personally, I cannot be in logistics mode and creation mode at the same time. I cannot proofread work as I create it; I have to have space from it or ask someone else. Charles has been a wonderful proofreader for me in my business! I can’t think in logical sequences and scheduling optimization at the same time that I am trying to craft a narrative or form an analogy. Therefore, I keep my planning sessions separate from my creation time to protect both of them.
Having a plan also helps to reduce decision fatigue. If you’ve ever stood in your kitchen at the end of a long day, utterly incapable of making a decision about what to eat for dinner, you’ve experienced decision fatigue.
The way to think about it is that every decision you make in a day requires a certain amount of money from your decision-making bank account. You start the morning with a full account, and as you go through the day, making decisions about what to wear, the right sequence of an important work presentation, which avocado to pick at the grocery store, whether you should take the dog on his evening walk now (when it’s raining) or wait an hour (when it’s dark), you spend your decision money. So when you find yourself in the kitchen, staring blankly, before grabbing a bag of chips (or just a big glass of water) because you simply cannot make the decision, you’re out of money.
This is what we want to avoid when working towards your big goal. You don’t want to sit down to write a blog post and first have to decide what you’re writing. You don’t want to wrap up your work for the day, anticipating an evening run, and then decide if it’s best to do a short run, a long run, or a cross training day. In both cases, you may simply walk away from the task, just because your decision bank was empty. Having a plan to pull from allows you to skip the decision-making step and jump straight into doing.
3. Small, consistent steps (that are actually messy and tiny)
You might have heard this piece of advice before, or its cousins “consistency compounds” and “consistency over intensity”. I feel like this is the least sexy advice there is, and I kind of hate it. But I still believe that it’s true, and that this approach is really important. So, why do I hate it?
Why this advice is the worst (but also the best)
Consistency = frequent work
To take small consistent steps, it requires consistent discipline. It will feel uncomfortable knowing that you need to work on something often to count as consistency. Maybe that’s every day or 3 times per week, but the beauty (and curse) of working consistently is that it happens a lot.
To work on something with consistency, you have to find what you need in order to make that happen. In my book, I talk about this in detail of whether you need Motivation or Habits to achieve your goals, and I’ll give a quick recap here:
- Motivation is rooted in connecting to the bigger picture and finding the inspiration to show up every day. This can look like doing a visualization exercise or doing affirmations or looking at a vision board, or activities like thinking about your “why” and what it’s going to feel like when you accomplish the thing.
- The habit approach is grounded in your identity; if you are the *type of person who* does the thing you’re doing, it makes perfect sense to keep showing up. If you develop the identity that you are a writer or a runner or an artist, it actually feels incongruous for you to not be writing or running or creating your art. So, you focus on cultivating your identity first, and the consistent action follows.
Consistency = Frequent Perfectionism Taming
The second reason why I resist following this advice (even though I know it works) is that it requires me to reconcile with my perfectionism every damn time.
If I am working towards something that feels important and soul-connected to me, I want it to be good, right? Great, even! How about perfect! *Perfectionism has entered the chat*
The major reason why this is a stumbling block is that for those of us who struggle with the compulsion to make something perfect, we end up procrastinating instead of creating. Our internal narrative says to do nothing because doing something risks having that thing be imperfect, and we can’t handle that.
When I want to create and work towards a goal, I intentionally diffuse that tension by setting the quality bar very low. I do not aim for it to be good, and I don’t try to get something “final” or “done” the first time (or second or third time) I’m working on it.
I am able to take small consistent steps only when I allow myself to have those steps be ugly and messy. Every time I sit down to work on something, I tell myself that it can just be a draft. It can be a “first pass”. It can be awful, but at least, it exists, and I know I can improve on it from there.
Truly tiny steps
In order for this advice to actually work for me, I also need to focus in on the “small” part.
If it feels too big to finish within the amount of time that I have to work on something, I will get intimidated and not want to even get started.
If I find myself struggling to get consistent work done, I set my bar for “small” really low. These are truly tiny steps! We’re talking: not write & send that important email, but just open up a draft and make 3 bullet points of what you want to cover.
Not 30 minutes and 500 words of writing on the book, but 7 minutes and 100 words.
Not run a mile, but put on your running shoes and play the first song on your running playlist.
Not update a section of your project, but just light the candle you like to smell while working on it.
Some days, this might be all that you do, and that’s fine! This is still forward progress. But what I find is that often, once I get over the initial hump of getting started, I can use that momentum to keep going and get even more done than I committed to.
There you have it! Those are my three major pieces of advice for someone wanting to accomplish a big goal, like writing a book. You have everything you need to make it happen!