The greatest and most persistent blockages to your progress in life usually come from a single source—yourself. Here are some simple, practical ways to give yourself the best possible chance of living a good life.
- Make the time to work out what’s most important to you. What’s so important you wouldn’t give it up, save in the most extreme circumstances? What feels like part of your deepest nature? What would it really hurt you to have to abandon? All these are core values. The more you satisfy them, the more fulfilling your life will be. Only you can truly decide what is a good life for you. Other people will try to decide for you, but all they’re doing is pointing you towards their values, not your own. Ignore them.
- Keep focusing on your strengths. What you focus on grows. If you focus on your weaknesses, they’ll grow too, because you’ll keep finding more of them. Remember this rule: “To minimize blockages, avoid your weaknesses.” Too many people spend their lives trying to eradicate their weaknesses. That’s like trying to completely eradicate weeds in a garden. It takes so much work that you’ll never have time to enjoy the flowers and vegetables. There will always be more weeds, and you will always have weaknesses. The trick is to minimize them when you can and ignore them when you can’t. A garden full of healthy, fast-growing flowers will crowd out and hide the weeds. A garden of neglected, undernourished flowers will see the few flowers hidden and crowded out by weeds.
- Stop paying so much attention to how you feel. No one can control their emotions, good or bad. If you spend your attention on how you feel, you’ll be in a constant state of anxiety. If you feel good, you’ll start worrying about how to keep that feeling. If you feel bad, you’ll fret over how to feel better. You feel whatever you feel. Get over it. Just go on doing what you need to do, regardless of your emotions. Don’t mistake excitement for progress. It’s easy to set out in a blaze of enthusiasm, only to run out of steam long before you’ve achieved anything that is going to stick. Decide what you are going to do, then do it. If you get excited, that too will pass. The main thing is to get whatever you want done, excited or not.
- Bet on continuous, incremental improvements, not sudden breakthroughs. This is one of the biggest differences between Japanese and American ways of doing business. The Japanese tend to work away steadily at many small improvements, never making too much fuss about finding some huge leap forward. American businesses tend to favor the idea of sudden, dramatic breakthroughs. Breakthroughs are great when they happen, but depending on them is a high-risk strategy. A single breakthrough that fails or doesn’t come on time can set you back to square one. In life, as in business, lots of small steps often take you further than one or two huge leaps.
- Most people get the essentials of life in the wrong order. They expect to feel good (or happy, or motivated) first; then, and only then, begin to tackle what they need to do. That makes all progress dependent on something as unpredictable and fleeting as a feeling. If you do what you need to do first, regardless of your motivation or state of mind, you’re more likely to feel better because you’ve just achieved something.
- Spend as much of your time as you can doing things that need to be done. Don’t worry too much what they are. Don’t worry about the order in which you do them. The old saying, “success breeds success,” is true. Most people spend far too much time thinking about what they’re going to do—then planning it out, allocating set priorities, and further polishing the plan—and far too little time doing things, even if they come in the “wrong” order. Don’t wait. Do at least something of what you need to do now. Then do some more. There’s no simpler or surer way to turn your dreams into tangible results.
- Never fall in love with your ideas. More people have found misery and frustration this way than any other. An idea is just an idea—a notion that makes sense at the time. At another time, or in other circumstances, it may make little sense at all. People overrate mere persistence as a source of success. If something isn’t working out, there is going to be a reason for that. Plugging on regardless won’t change that reason. Persistence is only useful when your idea still makes excellent sense and you simply haven’t given it enough time to develop. When people fall in love with their ideas they cling to them long after they should have let them go and moved on to something else.
- Cultivate an attitude of acceptance. The world is an unsatisfactory place. Things don’t happen as they should. Good people often fail and bad people often prosper. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things better. It does mean that we shouldn’t become stressed because what happens isn’t what we want. Accept that it happened that way and step back a moment to see what action is called for now. Whether it’s part of your plan or not, do it. If you always do what’s called for at the time, you’ll always be doing something positive. If that changes your world for the better, good. If it doesn’t, you still have the satisfaction that you did the best that you could. And you won’t have wasted too much energy on ranting and raving about the unfairness of life.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. Recent posts on similar topics there include “Want a trouble-free day?” and “When you’re up to your ass in crocodiles, why not get out of the swamp?” His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.