Cultivate Good Habits.
Improve Your Mindset.
Create a Vision.
Wake up Early.
Do this, don’t do that…
A bit overwhelming, right?
All the above concepts are touted in the areas of personal and professional development. In some ways, it’s almost a vicious cycle. People seek help in order to take the next step—to overcome a problem or to improve a particular area, but it can be paralyzing.
In the process of trying to take the next step to improve, you hear all these things you are supposed to be doing, and in doing so, you deepen your state of inaction—because you don’t know where to start. You may think, “Well I don’t have a vision, so I’d better create that, but then I have to improve my productivity, and then I have to improve my mindset…so I can’t really improve anything until I fix all those,” and in the end, you wind up doing nothing—because you need to return to your survival mode. How can anyone improve all those at the same time and see a difference in their lives the next day?
And in many cases, people actually feel worse about themselves, because they start taking inventory of all the things they are not doing. And that certainly doesn’t lead to individuals overcoming their challenges or achieving their dreams more easily!
One of the most common questions I hear is with regard to not knowing how to take the next step. It’s very easy to get caught up in realizing everything you’re not doing as described above, and that can be justification for not making expected progress in your life. This is why I am focused on resources that can help you take action. It’s even one of the reasons I use the word “optimize” because it’s like what we do in engineering—let’s yield a high quality product with minimal cost (i.e. yielding an even higher quality product for 100x the cost, in time/money, may not be profitable nor will it provide you the supply you need for your customers tomorrow!).
If we’re looking to improve something, we don’t necessarily want to take a year to get our systems in place; we typically need a different result as soon as possible and need to “optimize” the current situation for the better. And while it’s important to have good systems in place, realistically people need to see improvement more quickly. Therefore, I suggest taking action as soon as possible (while keeping in mind the overall system you’re aiming for in the future). I’m concerned that if you work on the system and don’t take action immediately, you’ll get so focused on perfecting the system that nothing will actually get done in the process!
Over time, you’ll find that the small improvements will compound, which is often discussed in the Kaizen approach. And if you do this intentionally, knowing the overall system or place you want to wind up, you’ll find that life helps you “course correct” along the way. But you can’t “course correct” unless you start taking action.
Therefore, if you’re in the boat of not knowing what to do next, check out my baby steps article for reference, and also keep the following in mind:
Just start working on what makes sense. While it’s important to take time to reflect and take a step back, don’t do that for days on end while waiting for an epiphany. Take a break and then get back to the task at hand.
If you’re not happy with your current situation and want a change in your life, keep doing #1 while also investing in yourself: take a few minutes each day to think about your overall system.
Sometimes when I present the above two points, an individual will respond to me and say, “Yes, but what makes sense for the next step?”
Naturally this is something best discussed in person. It’s very personal, but it may help for you to use some of the tools discussed in Success Blueprint or Design Your Success Academy. It’s hard to cover all the iterations of where you could be in your life or imagine what your situation is. But my quick, general advice would be:
Continue what you’re currently doing and just keep trying to do your best at it until you’re clear on your new goals. For instance, if you’re in a career you don’t like, keep working at it while you start preparing for a new one (taking online courses to increase your skills, posting your resume, etc.)
If you’re stuck not necessarily in terms of wanting a career change, but you want to feel better about yourself in terms of discipline or productivity, try to implement one small change while you continue to invest in yourself (described above). For instance, if you can’t bring yourself to start something you don’t want to do, create a spreadsheet (described in Optimize for Victory) and track your progress on simply working on it, with no expectation to how much time you spend on it. Your goal is to ensure the time you spent on it each day is simply not zero (0).
To wrap up, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s understandable. It’s easy to “go down the rabbit hole” so-to-speak when you’re looking to make a change. Start small and enjoy the compound effect of small improvements each day as you keep your intention about the new person you want to be (or new career, or whatever it is your heart desires!).
And one final note: I’ve noticed that as hard as it is to start something I don’t feel keen on doing, it typically doesn’t seem as bad once I’ve begun it, and I often feel a sense of relief and a release of tension for at least finally starting it!
Optimize for Victory: A Simple Approach to Overcome Challenges and Achieve Your Dreams
Success Blueprint: Get Out of Survival Mode, Regain Control of Your Life, and Get Ahead at Work and in Life
Course: Design Your Success Academy
Many of us struggle with overwhelm, especially when we are trying to accomplish a major project or goal in our lives. Often we’ll tell ourselves, “I’ll start it tomorrow when I’ll have more time and energy” or we’ll leave it for the next week. Interestingly, we are not simply avoiding our work; we are saying these things with good intentions. Given the nature of our time and state these days, that we’re almost always running out of time or energy, we dream of those moments of having total clarity and a sense of well-being to get things done (especially the hardest tasks). We suspect that we’ll get them done faster when we feel better and have more energy. While that’s probably true, the “I’ll have more time later” rationale is a vicious cycle; we can end up constantly putting things off and not making progress on the goals or dreams that we would like to realize — because those moments of “more time and energy” rarely appear.
(As a side note — I do discuss some nuances of how to optimize your time and energy to get things done faster in my upcoming book Optimize Your Productivity, but it’s a step beyond this article, where we’ll focus on a specific system to get more done* in twenty-four hours. Stay tuned because you will have a chance to download the kindle version for free in April if you follow my blog/subscribe).
So what is one to do? Often people will give advice and say “Take baby steps.” But then the question becomes, “What does that mean? What exactly is that first baby step?”
Here is a breakdown of how you can approach that first step and why it works:
- Break the task down into the absolute smallest steps possible (if you don’t already have a plan).
Write an outline, do a mind map, or write anything that comes to mind as a possible step (even if it’s the last step of the process). The idea is that you just want to get the ideas and concepts flowing. Later, you can edit the order.
If you absolutely don’t know where to begin, start with what you know. If you are trying to write a blog post, write out titles of other posts you did already. If you’re trying to get a research paper done, start googling ideas or looking up research articles on the topic. Find anything that is related to your topic, just to get going.
If you’re staring at a blank paper or cursor, do something completely different and open up google docs. Recently google docs added a “speak to type” feature. Just start talking about whatever is on your mind and gravitate toward the project you’re working on. Suddenly you’ll find that you start coming out with golden nuggets of information that can help you assemble the skeleton of your project.
In fact, this tool helped me get this post started. My time is extremely limited right now with everything going on, so I decided to start speaking the post out. Before I knew it, I was editing what I spoke initially and then typing/building out the rest of the post! Note that I did start with an outline.
By taking a small action, you “open the door” for the ideas to start flowing in. Be confident in the process and take that small action.
- Edit and re-order your structure of the project. This is an evergreen process because as you assimilate new information of your project, the structure and order can change. If you’re starting from scratch and you just mind-mapped a bunch of ideas for the topic, now try to convert everything into an organized outline.
One note of caution is not to have “project creep.” My old friends from industry will smile when they read this part; project creep — where we get away from the originally defined scope of the project — is a common problem and something we have to be vigilant about. This post does not cover project management in-depth, but it is simply intended to help you take action steps to start feeling better and more comfortable about moving forward. The assumption for this article is that you know exactly what the project is and will stick to the original scope of it!
- Make a micro-commitment to spend at least five or ten minutes on the next task that you have to do for that project. While it may seem like too small of a commitment, you’ll find that once you start, it will be easy to spend another few minutes on it. And if not, five or ten minutes on something is better than nothing.
Some time is better than no time on something, especially because time spent on the project, no matter how small, will kickstart the momentum of it.
To boost your gain on implementing this step, create a log in google, Excel or simply on paper. Make sure you log how much time you spend on the project every day, even if you only keep to the original few minutes.
This is more powerful than you realize! I discussed this concept a lot more in-depth, especially how it was the key to completing my Ph.D. research and dissertation (especially as an exhausted, bleary-eyed new mom), in Optimize for Victory. In fact, there are lots of studies on this topic. I read a great book last year called Mini Habits that explored this technique in-depth; it distilled a lot of the research for the public and even applied it to exercise/weight-loss.
Hopefully this framework will help you, especially if you’re struggling with tackling a big goal or dream. There is much more we can explore with this topic, but this is a good starting point! Feel free to share and comment below!
*”get more done” can mean an individual personally accomplishing the required tasks, or it can mean ensuring the required tasks get accomplished, even if not done personally — or a combination of both.
To learn more about Lisa and access free resources, visit:
Lisa Kardos, Ph.D. blogs about how we can optimize our lives for the better! (achieve happiness, success, and what we hold in our hearts!) She enjoys helping people overcome challenges to achieve their dreams.
Dr. Lisa Kardos has experience in chemical engineering, management, higher education, public speaking, and career development. She is the Founder of the Lisa Kardos School of Excellence and the Amazon Bestselling Author of Optimize for Victory: A Simple Approach to Overcome Challenges and Achieve Your Dreams.
For Mother’s Day, my husband got me two very practical gifts (gifts I wanted!) — an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, after typing up my dissertation, and while writing Optimize for Victory (all in the past year), I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be extremely painful and difficult to manage at times. The nerves are so sensitive in my right arm/hand that it hurts to touch anything with texture! This has been especially difficult to manage with also trying to handle my one-and-a-half year old. Therefore, my husband researched keyboards and decided to get me the one in the attached picture. It’s taking me some time to get used to it, particularly because I have been typing incorrectly, apparently, for 18 years!
We did formally learn typing in our computer class back in elementary and middle school; however, I would say that I truly could not type quickly until my family got a home computer when I was 14. It arrived at the perfect time, especially since I started high school still typing my papers on a typewriter! Once we got the computer, we signed up with AOL. As I discovered the new world of AOL instant messaging, I had to learn how to type quickly, especially because I could not keep up with all of the instant message conversations with my friends!
Now that I am using my brand new keyboard, my typing speed has significantly decreased, mainly because my left hand wants to cross over to the right side at times, especially to hit the “y” key. To be honest, I was shocked to discover I have been typing incorrectly for so long. I’m sure I will eventually get used to this keyboard, but it will be extra challenging because I essentially have to correct a “bad habit.” But I’m positive that correcting this habit will probably incrementally help me become a better and faster typist; I was probably inhibiting my typing speed and straining my hands without realizing it!
As we talked about the other day in Why Everyone Should See the Lego Movie, sometimes it’s a good thing to have a “blank slate” — not to have any preconceived notions or bad habits.
Often it’s harder to unlearn something that’s ingrained in you than to learn it the right way in the first place.
Similar to the typing situation I am writing about here, I went through this when I restarted violin lessons as an adult; I had no idea I had been doing some things improperly while playing the violin as a child.
Why is this important to you? Because many of you study personal development — you want to be successful and victorious. Sometimes you discover that certain habits or thought processes that are ingrained in you may be inhibiting you. This is certainly not a judgement, as I am constantly working on various thought processes that take away from my chances for success. One example is when I used to belabor being upset about a failed friendship or relationship (discussed in my book Optimize for Victory). In general, I am constantly thinking about how to “optimize” myself — how to improve by employing an engineering mindset.
So it’s important to keep in mind that many of us have little habits that can slow us down or inhibit us– but if we can acknowledge them and make a plan to overcome them, then we can work towards optimizing ourselves.