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Reaching the goal is not an action

29 Mar 2015

788 words

[This was difficult to write in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn’t live inside my brain and I don’t know if I succeeded. I’d be curious to know if this makes any sense at all to anyone who is not me.]

Nate Soares writes

When I have a big problem that I want solved, I have found that there is one simple process which tends to work. It goes like this:

  1. Move towards the goal.

What I’m about to write is kind of part of what his post is about, but it adds a layer of framing that has allowed me to feel virtually no anxiety about the future for almost a week now, which is extremely unusual for me. I wanted to share my thoughts in case anyone finds them useful.

So I know what the goal is and I’ve figured out the next action that will move me closer to success. At this point everything is fine, but as soon as I look into the future and try to visualize the transition from the current state to the state of having reached the goal my mind tells me there’s some mysterious huge task that still needs to be completed – one that feels unlike any “next action” I can take along the way. Like all the next actions are just preparation, and the actual accomplishing of the goal is different – something I have no idea how to do because I’ve never done anything like it before.

This probably sounds vague, so here’s an example.

Say I want to make friends. I’ve made friends before, I have some memory of what I did prior to calling the relationship a friendship – talk to the person, maybe make a joke or two, don’t be a huge dick, don’t complain about their improper use of hyphens as dashes, that sort of thing. And then at some point: bam!, friendship. So I say to my brain, “brain,” I say, “let’s go talk to people.” And my brain says, “okay, but then what?” – “Then we can become friends.” – “But how does the actual becoming-friends work? You only know how to talk to them. You don’t know how to create a friendship. If you can’t figure that out we might as well not try at all.” And so I stay silent.

There are many other situations where I feel like this. When I’m trying to study, for example, a good next action might be to do one of the homework problems. And my brain tells me, “yeah, you can do this now, but have you looked at what’s still in front of you? You still have to work through this whole textbook and do all those exercises and pass those two exams and do you really think you can do all this? Those are really big tasks and you’re just a small, not particularly impressive person.” So I start worrying, which makes me unable to focus on the work I have to do now, which makes me fail later.

But fortunately, for once, the truth is more pleasant than what my intuition tells me: There are no big mysterious tasks you need to complete in order to reach your goals. Once you completed all the challenges that stand in the way of success, you have reached the goal. Everything you will ever need to do is find the next thing to do and do that in this moment. When you have done that, reaching the goal is not another task but a consequence that happens on its own.

And in the meantime, there are never any tasks too big for you to handle. You won’t need to study for three years, you won’t need to prepare that exam, you won’t need to write a whole novel, you won’t need to create a friendship out of thin air. All you need to do is look at one homework problem, read one more sentence in the textbook, type another key on your keyboard, say another word to someone you like.

Sure, from your current perspective you can see big tasks ahead, but you won’t exist anymore by the time those become the next action. Those tasks will be handled by the millions of consecutive future-you’s, all working on their own next action for the infinitesimal amount of time they exist and letting the next one continue.

Thinking about my goals this way helped me worry less about not knowing how to solve big problems and not being sure whether I will succeed in the end. Instead I can now focus on right now, and let “someone else” take care of the rest.