Goals, Dreams, and Projects: Keeping Yourself Together in a Crisis
For many of us, life is hard enough even when there isn’t a global crisis. But when times get especially hard, our routine environments change. Uncertainty makes it difficult to focus. That, in turn, threatens our sense of self and stability.
Our comfort with ourselves is largely a measure of how we understand our thoughts and manage our actions.
Difficulty focusing is a natural response to uncertainty. When our ancestral environments were full of potential threats, our ancestors who kept one eye open even when they slept tended to survive and become our ancestors — survival of the one-eye-opened. The good sleepers got eaten. As a result, we’re all burdened with an over-active sense of angst, which is only heightened in times of distress. Sadly, it doesn’t make it easy to get things done when it feels like the world is burning down around you.
There probably isn’t a right answer as to whether or not we should try to stay organized or ‘get things done’ in a time of crisis. But crisis or not, many people find security in gaining some sense of control of their thoughts and actions. I’ve written this with those people in mind. I’m one of them.
When it comes to figuring out what to do or feel next, we all have a Pavlovian dog in our heads. Lately, a lot of us are working at home and the usual Pavlovian ‘work’ bells are missing. Instead of cues, that tell us to focus on the next task, we are overburdened with ‘eat’, ‘be entertained’, ‘check the news’, and ‘home and family management’ cues. Our poor little brains are salivating all over themselves about the wrong things.
To achieve anything, even a modicum of control over our thoughts, we have to build an environment that facilitates the thoughts we want to have.
Having taught courses on behavior change for years, I’ve learned — often from my students — that there are things that consistently work to help us get things done and achieve our goals. They are also well supported by science. I’ve summarized them all at the bottom and even included a visual aid, so you don’t have to remember it as you go along.
You’ll also be happy to hear that a lot of self-development tools work best when things are uncertain. That’s because those are the times and places when we need them most and when our routines are most threatened.
It will take a little bit of work to implement any of the ideas I describe below. But it will be well-paid work that will surely save you time and stress in the future, because this is the work that gets you closer to figuring out and doing what you want and freeing up your mind to do it well.
Bottom-up versus top-down thinking
If you break it down, any action you take is either a result of reactivity or prior planning. Either you’re responding to cues in your environment or you're responding to aspirations established by an earlier version of yourself who took time to make a plan.
The difference between reacting to cues and planning is basically the difference between bottom-up versus top-down thinking. Either you let your environment organize you — like when hot beach sand sends a signal up through your foot to your brain — or you organize your environment — like when your brain decides to bring your flip-flops to the beach.
There is a time and place for both top-down and bottom-up thinking. If you’re in the woods and you suddenly see a forest fire coming towards you, your best action is probably not to pull out a notebook and consider your alternatives. Bottom-up is best when a car flips over the mid-barrier in front you on the highway, when a crocodile is chasing you through a swamp, or when you’re just enjoying a show in the evening. Let the world and natural instincts do the work.
But imagine for a second that you want to build a skyscraper. This isn’t something you can achieve by reacting to whatever comes next. To build a skyscraper, serious planning has to take place. You have to organize the workers, the materials, and the order of events. If you cement the foundation without considering where the plumbing is going, you’re probably going to need some outhouses. Skyscraper outhouses are not pretty.
The same level of top-down planning goes for writing a book, doing excellent research, winning a football match, running an effective business, being an artist, or even just being your better self. All of these tasks require some kind of top-down plan.
If you think of your goals as multi-level towers of actions, then you realize you can’t really achieve your goals, meet your multi-action obligations, or do anything particularly efficiently without planning. That is unless you’re building a shack.
We’re not building shacks, we’re building skyscrapers.
Turning Bottom-up Reactions into Top-Down Plans
The first step in planning is to realize that you need to stop relying on your memory to remember everything. Make a list.
Relying on your memory will stress you out. Things will keep popping back into your mind when you’re trying to get other things done. Make a list.
Memories and thoughts are good for generating ideas, not for keeping track of them. I mean, okay, maybe in Neanderthal times things were less complex and memory worked well then. But over the past roughly 10,000 years or so things have gotten a bit more complicated. There’s a lot to keep track of. So make a list.
To keep track of things you need to get outside your head. If you just wait for stuff to pop up in memory, you’re just being bottom-up reactive. You need to get a ringside view of your thoughts. You need to cage the flying monkeys in your head. That means you need a list.
The LIST as a View on Your Mind
The first stage to getting a view on your mind is writing down everything that comes to your mind in one long LIST. Just get it all out. What’s itching at your mind right now? Find something to write that down. Then you can see it on the page in front of you. It becomes firmer than a slippery memory. It’s like catching a fish. Now you can take a close look at it. But before you do that, you should write down everything that’s coming to mind in one long list.
The long list should include your goals, all the stuff you have to do, your obligations, everything. To determine if an item should be on the list, ask yourself this: if it’s asking to be thought about, it needs to be on your list. If it’s an event you need to remember, a call you need to make, a book you want to read, a movie you want to watch, a course you want to take on yogic skydiving, write it down. Just get it all down on paper.
You can do a lot of things with this list. Most importantly, you can act on it in a top-down fashion. It is difficult to do this if you’re just relying on your memory because there is other stuff in your head competing in the cage-fight for your attention. The cage is your head. The only way to get a view on that cage-fight is to get a ringside seat by putting your thoughts out of your head, and down on paper.
Making, revisiting, and updating your LIST should be at least a daily activity, if not more often. Get a nice journal, or a fancy piece of software, and put down your thoughts and ideas as they come to you. If you just write these things down, you are already giving your mind a little room to relax and gaining some control over your thoughts.
This is a huge achievement. If there a top-ten list of things that have made human civilization possible, skyscrapers and all, writing things down is on that list. Try to use this power for good.
Turning Thoughts into Visions of Action
It’s quite difficult to see everything in your head. By externalizing your thoughts, you can start to picture it, see what things are related, and move things around. There are many things you can do with your list. You can organize it. You can prioritize it. You can stick it in your pocket and forget about it until you have time to deal with it later.
But most importantly, you can turn your LIST into ACTIONS. Next to each list item, write down the next action you need to take to complete it.
Actions are specific things you can do. An ACTION should be a set of clear instructions about what needs to be done. Those instructions should be detailed enough that you’ll know what to do when you see it again later. If you wrote down ‘Fix Car’ on your list, that’s not really an action. Your action might be ‘Call the garage and make an appointment.’ If the item on your list was, “Mom’s birthday”, your action might be “Ask Dad what Mom wants for her birthday.”
Moving from a list item to an action item is sometimes an exercise in being specific, sometimes it’s an exercise in imagination. Whatever it is, it is extremely powerful.
Research has shown that one of the most successful methods of changing your own behavior, above all else, is by writing out a specific plan of action. Saying to yourself as explicitly as possible what you are going to do at a specific point in the future is called setting implementation intentions. Science-wise, implementation intentions are hard to beat. Research by Gollwitzer and Sheeran looked at 94 studies of implementation intentions and found that they are consistently effective with much larger effect sizes than other approaches. In other words, they tend to work for most people, most of the time. Getting yourself to simulate in your head what you are going to do in a certain situation is the best way to get yourself doing it when that situation arises.
As you go down your list, some ACTIONS can and should be done immediately. David Allen’s rule from “Getting Things Done” is that if the action takes less than 2-minutes to complete, then do it now. That’s a life lesson for everything. If it takes less than two minutes to clean the kitchen and you’re standing in the kitchen, then unless you have something really pressing to do elsewhere, clean the kitchen now. If you’re going through your emails and an email can be processed, answered, forwarded, or whatever in 2-minutes, then do it now. If you have to remind yourself 20 times to do something that would have taken 30 seconds to complete, you’ve wasted a lot of time and let your memory interrupt countless other tasks with its anxiety.
Some ACTIONS go on the calendar. If the item on the list is “Vacation flights”, you might want to put it on your calendar that you’ll call the travel agent tomorrow. If it’s ‘read the conference proceedings’, maybe you want to put that on the calendar for a week before the conference. If it’s a meeting you’ve been keeping in your head, then put it where it belongs on the calendar.
Some items on your list may have an ACTION that is something like “file for future reference.” You can take pictures of anything and put them in a filing system online. You can also chuck them into a filing folder where you’re going to keep ‘things that go in the filing folder’. Seriously, file it somehow so you can find it later. Imagine what an ideal filing system would like, then put building that on your list of ACTIONS. That’s important.
This action planning uses your cognitive capacity for visions. This is the time when you simulate what you need to do, and then see what’s going to work. Then you write that action down. If you don’t know what to do exactly, choose something.
Doing the wrong thing is almost always better than doing nothing. Few start-ups succeed on the first try. Kids don’t learn to walk by waiting until they know how to take the first step. Just write an action down to go on the action list. If it’s the wrong action when you go to do it, you’ll learn and correct with a better action.
We learn from our mistakes, but only if we’re willing to make them.
Many of us feel uncomfortable sitting around planning because we feel like we have a million other things we should be doing instead. But we haven’t really organized those million other things, so we don’t really know how many there are, or how best to do them in an efficient way. We just know we’re seriously anxious that we’re forgetting something. As those other things come at us like whack-a-mole problems, we live reactively and bottom-up. Write down your moles on your LIST and then figure out the ACTIONS you need to take to deal with them.
You’re going to be revisiting your LIST and ACTIONS daily. You should check off ACTIONS on your list that you complete. You might write your undone ACTIONS down fresh on a new line or page. You can refresh this every day, or you can do it every few days when your lists start to get untidy. A tidy list is a happy list. If you have to hunt for your undone ACTIONS in a field of cross-outed ACTIONS, then you need a fresh list.
If you’re still wondering where some of your list items go, like your goals and dreams, read on.
Goals, Dreams, and Projects
Some people say there are only two kinds of problems in the world: not knowing what you want and not knowing how to get it. A different way to say that is that your life’s work is to figure out your life’s work, and then to figure out how to do that work.
Many self-development books focus on organizing what you have to do. That’s a mid-level management approach to life. It works well enough. But some self-development approaches focus on what you want to do.
What are your goals? What are your aspirations in life? If you could achieve one thing, right now, that would most change your life in the way you want it to change, what would it be?
This is truly top-down thinking of the highest quality. I always ask students in my behavior change courses on day 1 to write down their goals. Then they do it again the following week, and the week after. They revisit that list, because those thoughts are the most important things in their life. Those thoughts have the capacity to escape bottom-up reactivity and to top-down influence what they will become and what they will and can achieve. Those thoughts become even more powerful when they become visible and the mind can start to do its work on them.
Paying due respect to your visions is the Burj Khalifa of life management thinking.
I suggest writing your goals, dreams, and big project ideas down on your list with everything else, at least at first. You needed to get a birds-eye-view on those thoughts if you were ever going to make them real.
Then, once you have them down on paper, you’re going to create homes for each of them. Let’s call them PROJECTS for now. These are the big-ticket items, the visions that you like to think about, or sometimes have to think about because they’re important. In general, a project is anything that’s going to take some serious top-down planning. It could be the book you want to write, the project that you’re working on with another team, or the career in jazz trumpet you’re trying to start. Whatever it is, it deserves its own headspace.
That’s why each PROJECT should get its own page or document. So far we have a LIST and ACTIONS. Now we have some PROJECTS. Again, I’ve organized these all below in a quick visual, so you can see it all in action.
If you’re using a paper journal, then put a Project title on the top of the page for each project. If it’s a software-based system, give each project a well-named file folder. Do that for all of your PROJECTS. In the appropriate place, jot down what comes to mind about those projects and come up with an ACTION that is going to move each project forward. The ACTION then goes on your ACTION list.
If you’re using technology to create your organizer, the ideal technology will allow you to tag your ACTIONS so you can get them to be both in your PROJECTS and in an ACTION list at the same time. You can do this with technologies like Devonthink or OmniFocus. You can also do it on most basic computer filing systems for FREE simply tagging your files. Mac and Windows machines will allow you to tag items, for example, with ‘action’. Search for ‘Mac file tag’ on a search engine, for example, and you’ll see how it’s done. Or you could just put ACTION at the beginning of the filename.
Then you can create a smartfolder that only includes items with ‘action’ tags. Smartfolders will look through all your files and find files that match what you designate in the smartfolder. Search for Mac or Windows smartfolder and you’ll see how that’s done too. Now wherever you create an item with an action tag, it will appear in your smartfolder.
Now you have big ideas and actions to help turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Taking Action and Fulfilling Prophecies
Now that you have a list of actions that include your short and long-term visions, you can start to make some real headway. When you get started in the morning, you can begin with your list of ACTIONS instead of feeling like your head is an intersection at rush hour and all the lights are green.
This list is what your mind wanted you to do all along. You have perspective and you’ve helped your mind to relax.
If Homo neanderthalensis had the power to make lists and plans, they’d be living in the house next to you.
Now that you’re more relaxed, you might realize that there is another way to think about ACTIONS. All actions are either ACTIVE or PASSIVE. Active actions require effort, focus, and often require that you create or produce something. Passive actions allow someone else to do most of the work and do not require your highest level of performance or attention.
Different people have different peak performance times throughout the day. Whenever your peak performance time is, that is a good time for ACTIVE actions. When you’re not at the top of your game, do PASSIVE actions then.
Within a period of work, start with the active tasks first. This may not be true for everyone, but the science suggests it’s probably true for most of us. Most of us experience decision fatigue. The longer we’re doing stuff with our minds, the harder it is to solve more challenging problems and the less we want to or have the will to do it. Research has shown that after walking through IKEA, with its rat maze of a thousand and one decisions, we have more trouble planning. The more we exert mental effort, the more difficult it becomes to metaphorically lift the next mental object.
Therefore, if there is a big task for a certain day (or a period of days), you may want to start with that one first. This is the idea behind Brian Tracy’s book, “Eat the Frog.” Here’s a brief video summarizing the major idea.
If you do the hard thing first, you’ll be more inspired to do other things, and you can do them in a more relaxed manner. When you keep putting the hard thing off, the threat of that task will keep intruding on other tasks.
Also, the first part of your day may be the best time to tackle mentally hard problems, because your mind won’t have filled up with the countless other things the day has brought upon you. If you start your day with the news and social media, you’re sabotaging your capacity for relaxed and clear-minded self-expression.
So plan your actions in a way that allows you to get things done when your mind is most ready to do them. I suggest harder more important problems earlier in your day and easier and less important problems later in the day. But your mileage may vary.
To Action Reduce Distraction
When you’re doing your actions, you’ll want to reduce distractions. This is easier said than done. It’s especially hard if you haven’t written down all of your distracting thoughts. But it will also be hard if you have distractors like your phone buzzing away, or a nearby discussion or Netflix episode.
There are many ninja-style mind hacks for dealing with these kinds of problems. Methods like the Pomodoro Technique require you to put your phone or other technology away for a certain amount of time. Pomodoro is the word for tomato in Italian, so you might use a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to avoid having to use your phone. Apps that temporarily disable parts of your phone also work nicely. Forest is one I’ve heard good things about, but there are any options.
Sometimes you might try wearing headphones, even if they’re not on, to help you socially isolate. This will help you to psychologically turn off outside interference but also help prevent others from interrupting you.
In these ways, you get focused time to deal with specific actions that need focused time.
You’ll have to set aside time to get bigger actions done. One suggestion I’ve heard says don’t check your email or social media until after 11 am. Then you have several hours to take big actions before that. That time might not work for you, but if you want to make big actions happen, then you need to set establish a routine for letting yourself do them.
Obviously, if you have kids to feed, dogs to walk, grandparents to care for, and so on, you’ll have to incorporate those into your plan. But if you’ve taken the time to organize all the other events, you can deal with these events in an effective and more relaxed way, knowing that the other events in your life are properly accounted for and will be ready for action on your list when you get to it.
Revisit Your LISTS, ACTIONS, and PROJECTS
Writing down, organizing, and revisiting your ideas for future actions, goals, and the like should happen routinely.
You should revisit your LIST, ACTIONS, and calendar every day, preferably in the morning.
You should revisit your PROJECTS (goals and dreams), going through them all to get a status-update, about once a week. Really, this is where the major substance of your life is located, so keep it fresh. Your plans will change. By keeping up-to-date with yourself, you can adapt accordingly and help yourself navigate to new vistas.
Bullet journals are modeled after this approach, which allows you to keep day-to-day lists and an index of projects. There are tons of videos on bullet-journaling, so I suggest watching some, just for the fun of it. David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is another good approach from which I’ve borrowed a lot in this post. You can see a brief summary of this approach here.
If any organizational system is going to work for you, you have to invest in it. As with anything, you invest not only to do but to learn. There is an art to organizing oneself and you can learn that art if you give yourself time to do so.
By writing down your thoughts and goals and what you can do to achieve them, you can start to fight a resistance against the forces of disorder and reactivity that will otherwise rule your days.
Finally, here is a visual image that may help to organize the ideas I’ve described above. LISTS become ACTIONS. PROJECTS become ACTIONS. And Finally, you have a place to reference your thoughts, in lists that you index. If you’re using a paper journal, like a bullet journal, then you can index these so you can find them easily when you need to.
I hope that whatever your crisis, local or global, you can use this to alleviate some of the sense of anxiety you may feel and to gain some control and vision.