You started the year with such great plans. You were going to work out every day, cook a great meal from scratch every night, beat all your revenue goals, and finally start writing that book.
Then reality happened. Now, here you are, more than two thirds of the way through the year, and you haven't fulfilled any of your own ambitious plans. Once again, you've failed.
If you're anything like me, all this will sound very familiar. But maybe there's a way to escape the repeating cycle of big plans followed by bitter disappointment in your own inability to carry them out. That suggestion comes from executive coach and bestselling author Wendy Capland. For the past couple of years, I've been working with Capland as my coach and writing about what I've learned in the process.
In a coaching session early this summer, I was lamenting my own lack of follow-through, and she suggested a simple exercise that gave me a whole new perspective on my goals and plans and how I perform on them. It might work for you too:
1. Make a list of the promises you've made, including to yourself.
The list should include everything from the deadlines you've committed to at work, to the promises you've made to your spouse or kids, the things you've promised yourself you'll do to be physically healthy, and the projects you want to bring into being. My list included writing deadlines (including this column), working with a financial planner to reorganize my finances, and spending time meditating and exercising every day, among other things.
2. Assign a type to each promise.
"There are many types of promises," Capland said. "But for this exercise, we'll focus on four: trustworthy, heroic, fantasy, and criminal." A trustworthy promise, she explained, is one where you've made a commitment and will keep it. A heroic promise is also one you'll keep, but it'll be a stretch--you may have to work all weekend or pull a couple of late nights to get it done. A fantasy promise is one that you probably won't fulfill. You know it's a good idea and you should do it, but it probably won't ever happen. And a criminal promise is one that you make knowing full well you'll never get around to it.
Go back over your list of promises and assign one of these types to each. Was it trustworthy? Was it criminal? In my case, Capland observed, "You make a lot of heroic promises, and then consider that normal." Maybe you do this too.
3. Decide which are high priority.
Next, Capland had me define each of these promises as an A, B, or C level priority. It was interesting to see how these lined up. Were any of my fantasy or criminal promises of level-A importance? (One was: my promise to get my finances in order.)
4. Take a long, hard look at your list.
Capland left me with my list and rankings with the instruction to look for insights. She noted, "We all know there's too much on our plates, but sometimes seeing it all written down makes us gasp."
Then she posed a question: "Based on what you see here, is there anything you'd like to change?"
I wanted to say I would eliminate some of my planned tasks. Obviously I should, since I wasn't getting them all done anyhow. But there wasn't anything on my list of promises I was willing to remove. Yes, I have a lot of work deadlines, but I enjoy the work and I need to earn a living. No, I don't exercise as often as I plan to, but I'm certainly not taking exercise off my list of priorities. And on it went. There wasn't a single item that didn't have to be there.
So maybe what needed to change was my attitude about not living up to my own ambitious plans. "It's not the fact that we overpromise, it's the worry about it that's bad," Capland commented during our conversation. That made a lot of sense to me. Some things get done as planned. Others get put off to some other time, or maybe never. That's life, and it's OK, so long as you don't make things worse by torturing yourself over whatever you didn't get done.
Then again, you might be accomplishing more than you think. Capland and I took a break over the summer, so I set my list of promises aside for several months. Recently I looked at it again, and I made a surprising discovery. I hadn't completed everything I'd set out to, but I had made progress on all my promises, even the ones that were fantasy or criminal. I haven't reorganized my finances yet but I've emailed with a financial planner friend and found out the first steps to take. I haven't exercised every day as I planned, but I've done a fairly challenging hike most weekends for the last several months. I haven't been meditating every day, but I've taken meditation classes and learned some new techniques, and I meditate, at least for a few minutes, several times every week.
I've always worried that if I stop scolding myself for my failures, I'll never get anything done at all. But I did stop scolding myself, and stuff got done anyway.
I'm guessing it's the same for you. As human beings, we are hard-wired to look at the negative side of things. But, just for a moment, stop fretting over all the things you planned to do but haven't. Take a look at all the things you have done. I'm willing to bet it's a pretty impressive list.