Ophthalmologists tell us to have our eyes examined each year. But how about our vision for our lives? When would be a good time to check your “in-sight”?
The Tyranny of the “Same Old Thing”
Sir Isaac Newton is famous for, among other discoveries, describing the tendency of objects at rest to stay at rest and objects in motion to continue in motion unless disturbed by an outside force. People too have their own brand of inertia called “habit” or more informally, “being in a rut.”
Habit, in and of itself, is not a problem. Indeed we would be all but paralysed if we had to re-decide our every action every time we needed to do something. An easy way to see the positive power of habit is to try working in someone else’s kitchen. Because you haven’t encoded the kitchen layout in your head through repeated usage, even making coffee can be a major undertaking.
Because a habit can be so helpful, we resist getting rid of them. Nothing becomes a habit without a long series of behaviors that are rewarded in some way. You probably wouldn’t get in the habit of going to a particular restaurant if the food was always bad, or even often bad. But what happens when a good restaurant goes bad? Often the habit sticks around. Similarly, we stay in jobs or hang around in social situations which might have been fine at one time but now clearly no longer serve us. Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Reconnecting with Our Vision
Sometimes being stuck in a rut stems from inattention. So many things demand our attention every day: our families, our jobs, the media, the Internet. We can quickly run out of mental bandwidth to even consider the long-term implications of where we are going.
Clarifying a vision for life requires time and quiet concentration, away from the struggles of everyday life. Some people have the luxury to go on retreats and formally separate themselves for a time to sort out their vision. Yet even a few uninterrupted moments can produce useful results. Like many ideas, glimpses of a vision for your life may sneak up on you while daydreaming, on your daily commute, or in the shower, so stay on guard!
Transforming or Matching?
One way to clarify vision is to break down our ideas into three groups: what we want to have, to do and to be. Of the three, the third is the one that deserves the most consideration. Although our parents were quick to tell us we could be anything we wanted to be, being realistic can save us a lot of disappointment.
Decades of research have shown that some traits are enduring across time. We call them “temperament” or “personality.” The “Big Five” list of temperament traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism all tend to be fairly stable throughout life.
Some of these traits seem problematic on the outset (high levels of neuroticism for example). Others may pose specific obstacles to a given goal. For example, being a performer may be tougher for someone with lower levels of extroversion (outgoingness) than for someone with higher levels.
While it is neither my place nor my inclination to talk someone out of their dreams, it only makes sense to favor visions that match your temperament, rather than conflict with it. Knowing who you are and what comes naturally to you may not be the deciding factor in your goals, but at least it deserves consideration.
Avoid Destination Fixation
Usually, when people create a vision for their lives it is like a still picture of how they want their life to be. Underneath it is the caption “my life will be good when this is true.” As natural as this impulse may be, it’s a recipe for disappointment. Until you get to this hallowed place, your life becomes incomplete and inadequate.
A far better approach is to work backward from your target. Your goal may be to get healthy by losing 50 pounds, but you’ll need to lose those pounds one at a time. So how will you lose the first pound or first five pounds, and by what date?
Even more important is to focus on the activity that brings the result, not the result itself. Continuing on with our weight-loss vision, losing pounds is a measure of success, but changing what you eat and how much you move are two of the most important behaviors that lead to success. Rather than staring at the scale, consider the actions that move the number up or down. Focusing on behaviors over results is also more motivating, since behavior is under our immediate control in a way that most results are not.
Repeatedly performing the right behaviors and eliminating the wrong ones leads to the creation of habits that drive us, over time, towards our vision of success. So strangely enough, we’ve come full circle back to habits. Reaching most goals requires removing bad habits and installing good ones. Knowing this, we can measure our success by daily actions rather than some ultimate outcome.