I volunteered recently to help a group of men in a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Kenya. I taught them about the links between thoughts, feelings, actions, and results. We explored how having thoughts like "my life is hopeless" or "there is no opportunity for me here" could lead to further substance abuse, and the role of more positive thoughts in recovery.
After running through several examples of the self-coaching model, one man raised his hand with a question. "So," he said, "if I have a thought that I can get a good job and earn a living to support my family, I will continue to go out and knock on doors and ask for employment." Yes! This is the kind of understanding I was going for. Thinking "there's no opportunity here" leads to actions, or inactions, that are unlikely to change one's reality. Thoughts like he suggested lead to hope and determination, which in turn lead to actions like looking for employment until it's found. This shows mastery of the concept, that changing your thoughts will change your reality.
As we celebrated this command of the day's lesson, he continued with this profound query..."How long do I keep doing that before I give up? If I keep knocking on doors and people keep telling me no, how do I know when to stop?"
Best. Question. EVER!
How long do you try something before giving up? When is the appropriate time to quit? Commonly held belief says you NEVER quit. But what's on the other side of that coin? You've likely heard the supposed definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
What lies between quitting and insanity? If doing the same thing time and again won't lead to a different result, and quitting certainly won't create the results you're looking for, what's left? How do you walk the line down the middle of the Road to Success?
The answer is surprisingly simple. It's a combination of two skills I teach my clients: inspired action and effective evaluation. Let's explore...
Inspired action is learning to take the step in front of you, without the need for an extensive plan. That isn't to say that you don't know the end goal. Without an idea of where you're going, the first (or next) step is difficult to determine. Rather, inspired action involves knowing the end destination and being aware of the step that lies directly ahead, but letting go of the points in between.
It's like knowing you're going to take a road trip to New York and the first night you're going to camp in Yellowstone, but not worrying about how far you'll drive or where you'll stay on the rest of the days. When you get to Yellowstone, you choose the next destination, always keeping New York in mind but never getting bogged down in massively detailed plan.
I know, the massively detailed plan has an equally massive amount of cultural street cred. Proper planning prevents poor performance, does it not? So our current culture would have you believe. But this is far from true in my experience. Having NO plan tends to be ineffective. Driving at random, with no end destination, and forgetting things like the fact that more than 500 miles may exist between gas stations in Montana is a bit of a recipe for disaster. You need SOME idea of where you're going. It's helpful to know how long you're willing to be away from home. You should know how many miles your vehicle will travel on a tank of gas. A basic framework for your goal is a necessary element of achieving it.
But a detailed plan? That won't be particularly helpful, and is, in fact, likely to be detrimental. My dear soul sister, here is the truth: planning is where action goes to die. Planning is a sneaky subvert that all too often ends up as the only action ever taken.
Planning is a type of passive action. That's an action you can take that doesn't have risks. It's FAKE action. Planning allows you to look at your life and say "see, I'm doing something! I'm making phone calls, I'm researching programs, I'm getting more education, I'm reading reviews." What' you're not doing is anything that actually moves you forward.
Planning allows for the illusion of action without the risk of facing feelings or experiencing failure. The kicker is that there is also zero risk of success. Planning is the fat-free potato chip of personal development--all of the busyness, none of the results. The high social stature enjoyed by planning adds to the appeal. You risk being labeled as flighty or impulsive if you just up and do something. Better make a plan! And so you do.
Which leads to my second complaint about planning...it wastes a TON of your time. Tell me you haven't been here--you spent days, weeks, months, or even years creating a grand plan. You beat the odds and actually made it beyond planning to take a bit of action...which does not go as planned. And now you are back to planning. It's an endless time suck and one of the top reasons why so many want change, but so few achieve it.
Back to our road trip. You could spend all summer researching hotels and attractions, deciding which cities to visit, making phone calls to camp grounds, and generally planning your ass off. You can create a detailed agenda for yourself, including each stop you'll make, where you plan to eat, ALL of the details. Assuming you still have enough time left to actually take the trip, what happens when you car breaks down on day 2? Or the museum you planned to visit in Ohio is closed on Thursdays? You're thrown back into planning mode, consigned to spending more time and energy, amidst feelings of frustration and failure.
But if you decide from your tent in Yellowstone how many miles feel good the next day, if you stop when you're tired, eat when you're hungry, and generally allow for events to flow without resistance (created by your master plan), life is easier. There's more time and energy for enjoying the ride, and you're open to more possibilities. You find out that the Universe can take you on a journey that's much more fulfilling than anything you could have planned ahead of time.
When it's time for growth or change, spend a few moments laying out the basic framework. Then just take the step that's in front of you! Make the phone call, apply for the job, have the conversation, ask the question, buy the book, write the first paragraph. Gas up the car! Don't worry so much about the details; they will sort themselves out as you. Take the inspired action.
And then pay attention.
This is the true middle ground my Kenyan friend was searching for. I can take action, but what happens when it doesn't lead to the intended result? If I have 10 days to reach New York and I'm only a quarter of the way there by day 5, am I going to make it?
Enter effective evaluation. As you take your inspired actions, pay attention to the results you are creating. Are they moving you towards your end goal? Are they doing so in a timely fashion? If the answer is yes, keep going! If the answer is no, make adjustments the next inspired action. (I teach my clients a simple, specific 3-part evaluation...learn more about this skill by scheduling a free chat.)
Notice that it's not necessary to make adjustments to all 1,687 steps of the master plan. Just tweak what's in front of you now. Make more phone calls, or call different people. Apply for jobs in a new industry where your skills transfer, have the conversation in front of a therapist, or send the first paragraph to a potential literary agent.
Then repeat the process, ad infinitum. Take the first, or next, step. Evaluate. Repeat. Simple? Yes, but not always easy. Taking inspired action goes against what you've been taught about how smart girls move through the world. Look before you leap, they said. Proper planning prevents poor performance, they promised. You're going to have to buck that system, and it may feel uncomfortable. In addition, successful inspired action requires you to let go of expectations, and to embrace a totally new definition of failure.
It's like your road trip takes you to Baskin-Robbins, where you walk through the door and try the first flavor you see. You just ask for that little pink spoon without wondering whether or not you'll like this flavor, or feeling like you're missing out on all of the other flavors. There's no plan for whether you'll have one scoop or three, a cone or a sundae. You just make a move with what's in front of you right this moment.
But here's the great part--taking inspired action and evaluating it effectively also means getting to say "nah, I don't love that flavor," and try another. And another. And another, until you find the flavor you would eat every day until you died of coronary artery disease with a big, sticky smile on your face, right there in the middle of the road, between quitting and insanity.
It's a whole different approach to making things happen. It can be challenging to learn how to take action this way. But I promise, once you can let go of over-planning and let inspired action take the wheel, you're going to love the ride.