What Is Your Story – Chapter 13
The difference between wishful thinking and choosing a new direction for our future lies in having a plan of action. This doesn’t mean knowing everything that needs to happen. In a complex world and a constantly emerging and evolving future, we will never truly know everything. The best we can hope for is to have enough clarity about our direction and enough insight into our current situation to know which steps to take first. Every journey starts with a first step, followed by the next, and the next. Those few step are what we need to make happen, and then trust that the subsequent steps will be revealed to us as we progress on our journey.
Step 6: Making a plan of action
There are at least as many planning frameworks and tools as there are books on the topic of planning. Everyone should feel free to use whatever planning approach they feel comfortable with. However, not all planning is equal. Here are a few elements I think are particularly important when planning our personal journey.
Goals & Targets
The first step of planning is making sure we are clear about our goals and targets. That may sound obvious but does require some introspection. Unless we have put them down in concrete terms we often only have a vague outline of our goals, not their substance. Concrete terms are about the visible, tangible and intangible differences we expect to see when we arrive at our destination. The goals we are talking about here are personal development goals. Knowing what we expect to gain by achieving them is important to keep our motivation and inspiration for our journey.
I have left the corporate world to write books and to develop myself as a public speaker and facilitator around topics I am passionate about. I need to generate enough income to maintain a reasonable standard of living. I want to keep the workload balanced between time spent performing in public and time writing so I can keep developing content. My work is meant to motivate and inspire people to take positive action in their own lives, so I need to reach enough people to feel I have any impact at all. Finally, I realise this is just another leg of my ongoing journey of discovery, so I do want to keep feeling I am still exploring, learning and growing as I go on.
To make this more concrete, I have summarised my goals and targets as follows:
- 2 – 4 public engagements per months for 6 months of the year, leaving the other 6 months for other things, including writing;
- Enough income from these engagements to allow me to be highly selective in accepting work that I find relevant, intrinsically rewarding and fun to do;
- Continuous improvement of my presentation skills so I get more satisfaction having more impact while expending less energy;
- A growing impact so that more people are inspired to take positive action because the content I present;
- A deepening understanding of the topics I talk about;
- A continuing feeling of personal growth and ongoing progress on my personal journey of self-discovery and self-realisation.
Visible Indicators of Progress
Goals becomes guides when we can articulate them in terms of observable differences, so we can see we are moving in the right direction. They are often not objectively ‘measurable’ – intangible goals and targets seldom are. Still, for as much as possible, we should describe them in ways that help us notice when they occur or fail to occur when we expected them. We must have the differences we expect to achieve so clear in our minds we can regularly scan ourselves and our environment for any signs that those differences are actually occurring.
Since we are planning a journey, not a sudden leap to our destination, we should add a way of sensing ‘progress’ as well. Next to looking for signs that we have reached our goals, we want to define ways to determine we are getting closer to achieving them. We can call such signs “Visible Indicators of Progress” (VIPs). When articulated well, VIPs can be powerful tools to help keep us going on our journey, even when our goals and targets seem difficult to reach and far in the future.
We can use the following questions to add VIPs to our goals and targets:
- When the goal has been achieved, how can we observe the difference? What actually changes when we achieve this goal?
- When we approach the goal, how can we observe we are getting closer? What changes when I am on the right path, moving in the right direction?
- When the goal is receding, how can we observe we are drifting off course? What changes when we are moving in the wrong direction?
Using the 3 questions outlined above, these are some of the VIPs I came up with for my goals:
- Public engagement
– achieved: enough bookings for the coming year
– approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, invitations and requests
– receding: no reaction on my attempts to generate interest
– achieved: all our living expenses are covered, plus savings, emergencies and holidays
– approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, proposals and concrete sources of income
– receding: nothing in the pipeline and no income for more than 6 months
- Improving my presentation skills
– achieved: I get more energy out of presenting than I put in every time
– approaching: I feel energised more often than I feel depleted
– receding: I almost always feel more depleted than energised
- Public engagement
At the moment I can honestly say goal 1 is slowly approaching, goal 2 is receding and for goal 3 I need to do more presentations to be certain, but so far, so good.
Choosing Our Actions
With our goals and VIPs defined, we now have a guiding framework to help us choose our future actions. We will have to gain and practice some new skills, increase doing certain activities and diminish or stop completely doing certain others. This is where our choices become the foundation for the future we have chosen to create.
When choosing our actions, NOT doing things may be one of the most difficult things to focus on. We live in a busy world. There are always more things to do than we can hope to complete. Much of this busy-ness stems from other people’s expectations of us. Our jobs, family, social circles all make demands for our time and attention. On top of that there is a constant overload of media (social or otherwise) clamouring for our limited attention.
This is where we need enough discipline to shun needless distractions and rigorously reduce the number of things we are trying to do and think about in any given time-frame. We need to understand the difference between urgent and important. We need to discern between what is requested and what is required. We need to choose between what is expected and what is expedient. Then we need the discipline to stick with those choices.
The one activity I had to become much more disciplined in is writing. Publishing books is my chosen way to strengthen my reputation as an authority on the topics I want to be known for. Writing books is hard and time-consuming. There is also the issue of inspiration and the ‘mood’ one needs to be in to write. My past tendency used to be too procrastinate. I collected endless amounts of ‘supporting evidence’ – most of which I then did not use. I kept reading other people’s books for ‘inspiration’. And often I would stare at an empty screen for hours hoping that one golden idea would come to me.
To combat this kind of procrastination I set a daily goal for myself: I would write a minimum of two pages of text each day. I also made sure I blocked out several hours each day solely for the purpose of writing. And then I would sit down, turn of all distractions and simply write. What made this work was my conscious decision to just keep writing. Instead of trying to write perfect sentences and beautifully crafted arguments I often just typed out whatever thoughts occurred to me. Often I would imagine talking to someone and explaining something to them. Whatever I would say in such a conversation I would write down.
In the beginning, this was much harder than it sounds. I had to really focus to shut down my inner critics – those nagging internal voices that keep telling you nothing you write is good enough – and just plough on. The aim was to get my thoughts down on paper. Crafting them into coherent text and artful language would come later. Even when I felt I was not making any sense, I would just type on.
What this disciplined and stubborn way of writing taught me was that the art of writing really is the art of deleting. Much of what I initially wrote never made into any book or blog I would consider publishable. The truth is, however, that to be able to delete things, you have to have written them first. I discovered it is much easier to hone down a rambling and badly-written bloated piece of text to something passable than it is to get every sentence right the first time around.
It has also taught me that the process of writing is itself a process of exploration and discovery. It is another way of capturing and structuring my thoughts. It changes the way I think about things. It brings depth and coherence to ideas. It helps me connect separate ideas together. It exposes gaps in my thinking. Many of what I now think are my best ideas only formed because I ran into them while trying to make sense of something I had written days or weeks before.
Setting Our Priorities
Choosing what to do and what not to do only really works when we have our priorities right. The world has an unlimited appetite for our efforts and attention, whereas we only have a limited amount of each to give. We need to give as much attention as we can to those activities that further our story. If we don’t, our journey will be cannibalised and diffused.
In practice, strict prioritisation means the following:
- Never have more than 3 priorities. Period. If we have more than 3 priorities, they are not priorities but just a list.
- Next to what we want to do (our priorities), we will have things we need to do (our socio-economic obligations). We need to schedule those in so they don’t obliterate our priorities. When we perform our obligations we need to aim for the acceptable minimum energy and quality. We don’t want to over-perform here and waste precious energy and brain-power. The rule of thumb here has to be: it only has to be good enough to get away with. Anything more is costing more than it should.
- Keep some time free for the unexpected. Some urgent can come that cannot be ignored. An opportunity too good to pass over can suddenly present itself. If nothing claims that free time, use it to relax and have some social time with a loved one or some friends. Or really do nothing at all. Just switch off that all too busy brain and stare out of the window or go for an aimless but pleasant stroll outside. Next to doing what is important to us, doing nothing (in all its many forms) is one of the most important things we can do.
This is what my current daily priorities look like:
- Read and think
On my list of obligations I have:
- Time with my wife
- House and garden maintenance
- Family and friends
On my list of ‘to avoid as much as possible’ I have:
- Social media, except as part of my networking activities
- Long conversations with people about nothing
- Taking on contracts for work I’m not inspired by
And finally, for my downtime, I have a few relaxation-, recharging and resetting activities:
- Walk outside
- Make music
- Read fiction
- Watch a documentary
- Take a 20-minute power nap
I may not always manage to stick to this allocation of my time and attention, but overall it’s working really well for me. The very existence of this book – written in parallel with one other book and several blog posts – is proof to me that these are the right priorities, obligations, no-go zones and down-time items for me at this point.
Taking the time to plan, setting goals, VIPs and priorities, and then creating structures to help us stick to the plan as much as possible is not always the most inspiring way to use our energy. But it pays off in the long run. And the long run is, after all, what we are in for on this personal journey.