A few weeks ago I had a psychological epiphany with respect to my life over the last 7 years since my accident, and probably way before that too. I was reading an article by one of my favorite authors who focuses on writing about behavioral psychology, James Clear (www.jamesclear.com). He writes on subjects such as habits, performance, and just generally on topics regarding self-improvement based on proven scientific research. He had a very interesting article on letting go of your goals and focusing on process instead.
When I first started reading this article I thought to myself “I’ve always lived my life by setting specific goals and trying to achieve them.” However, what I did not realize throughout the course of my life, and especially since my accident, is that goals have actually been hindering my progress and reducing my current happiness.
Don’t misunderstand me, having general goals are important as they keep you focused towards trying to achieve something very specific. What I did not think critically about was that when you are working towards a specific goal you are essentially saying “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.” The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.”
The wheels in my head started turning to where I took a day off work to think critically about what he meant. Throughout my life I’ve always been taught to work hard, think critically, create a specific goal, work my ass off until I achieve that goal, and success will follow. So, clearly I had defined success to equal happiness in my life. Interestingly the exact opposite has happened to me over the last 7 years of my life since I broke my neck.
After my accident I had such specific goals I thought that if I achieved successfully I would be happy. This did not happen. Actually, quite the opposite happened … I was thrown into bouts of depression, anxiety, and complete despair for years on end despite the fact that I worked hard every day, and pushed myself to the brink of exhaustion. There were even periods that were so dark in my life several years after my accident that I wanted to commit suicide.
Let me give you some concrete examples:
- During the first year after spinal cord injury your chances of improved motor function are at the highest. So, generally folks with spinal cord injury push themselves tremendously during rehabilitation and focus on nothing other than trying to get better.
- I was so focused on the goal of improving motor function that when nothing returned after about a year the disappointment and despair was overwhelming. I only had the goal of getting better, but I didn’t have any other metrics for creating happiness.
- Throughout my life I’ve always defined success and happiness to also be firmly based on my professional success as a trader. For years on end I worked towards the goal of trying to make a lot of money and told myself that if I did I would then be happy.
- The reality was so much more complicated. When I did not make a successful trade I would beat myself up and make more mistakes. I put these incredibly high expectations on myself to achieve something so specific that when it did not happen I automatically assumed I was a failure … not only a failure professionally, but a failure in life because I placed all of my hopes and dreams on professional success in the beginning. It wasn’t until years later things started to change for me when I let these lofty goals go.
- When I started to develop a major pressure sore I had a focused goal on making sure I turned every several hours in bed in order to heal it. This was a great process, but the mental state I created for myself was such that I thought my life would be smooth sailing once I healed my pressure sore, and everything would fall right into place.
- I believed I would be happy once I healed and, again, life would start being a little bit easier for me. Somehow I truly believed that without a pressure sore I would be happy. Don’t get me wrong, life is definitely better without a pressure sore, but it certainly does not create happiness to just heal up a piece of your skin 🙂
- For 6 ½ straight years I dealt with medical disaster after medical disaster and I kept telling myself that if I could just be medically stable I would fine contentment in life. I had the goal in my mind that physical health meant happiness would follow. Physical health and psychological health are two different beasts, which took me a very very long time to learn.
There are literally countless examples over the last 7 years where I would set a specific goal and in my mind life would fall neatly into place once these goals were achieved. Since I set such high expectations and such lofty goals I was constantly disappointed with myself, the outcome, and the fact that I wasn’t happy once a pressure sore was healed, a successful trade was made, a surgery was successful, etc. In my mind I simply wasn’t good enough and there was always more that I could do in order to create happiness. The ironic part of that thought process is that I literally had no idea what happiness meant to me to begin with. I didn’t define what it meant to be happy … and I’m still learning as I’m sure we all are.
I wasn’t necessarily depressed or unhappy all the time over the last 7 years, but I was kind of stuck in between this middle zone in life where I was indifferent. So, I recently began asking myself why have I started to find more happiness in my life in the last year as compared to the years prior? I reflected on this question for hours on end after reading this article by James clear, and it hit me.
I’m not quite sure why, but I had naturally started to let go of my goals over the last year and started to live my life. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was doing differently. As it turns out I started to commit my life to a process, not a goal. Choosing goals puts a huge burden on your shoulders. For example, as James Clear points out, “can you imagine if you have the goal to write two books in a year when just one sentence would stress you out?” Instead why not keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on a daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals. So, committing to write a page a day, if your goal is to write a book, keep that consistent process on a daily basis, and before you know you have a whole book in front of you a year later.
Goals are necessary, but they don’t always keep you motivated over the long term. They can create a type of “yo-yo” effect where you go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This type of cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for long-term success. If you create a system mentality you end up sticking to a process on a daily basis … Goals are about the short-term results and systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.
Another challenge I find with goals is every time we set a goal life throws a curveball our way, we get thrown off track, put our goals aside, and start to drift away from our original objective. Essentially, goals are for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. For example, I now wake up each day have a schedule where I exercise, spend so many hours on trading in the financial markets, set 30 minutes aside to meditate, create relaxation time at night, etc. Most importantly, I set aside time on the weekend, which I never used to do, to go out and do random & crazy fun things. Of course I have goals in life of wanting to be successful, happy, healthy, etc. I hadn’t realized until recently that I had stopped obsessing about my long-term goals and had started focusing more on a daily process of getting certain things done, and letting life unfold as it will.
“Letting go and enjoying the small things”
Life can be stressful enough and usually you are your own worst enemy with respect to creating unnecessary stress in your head. You would think with my ridiculous amount of near-death experiences, incredibly long hospital stays, and traumatic events I’ve been through that I would’ve learned to live each day to its fullest more quickly. Honestly, I did not. I still have days where I overwhelm myself, have anxiety from spinal cord injury, caregiving, relationships, etc., but the difference now is that I am actively aware of these pitfalls I can so easily fall into.
I think, as human beings, we spend so much time in life working towards a specific goal that we think will make us happy in the long run that we miss living our lives while we are doing it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re healthy, able-bodied, disabled, mentally disabled, etc. it is human nature to obsess about how to find happiness. The caveat is so many of us don’t realize some of these lessons until decades later when so much of our lives have passed us by.
Personally, I’ve had enough. I plan on sticking to a process each day and if it does not go according to plan then I always have the next day to make a course adjustment. I have goals, but I have stopped obsessing about them. For God sake I could literally die tomorrow, any of us could. I don’t want to be a victim to my own psychological paralysis anymore and I strive, on a daily basis, to make this a reality now! I think being physically paralyzed is way easier than being psychologically paralyzed 🙂