Some time ago, a friend of mine (Dan – not his real name) took part in a triathlon for a charity that is dedicated to furthering medical research on leukaemia and lymphoma.
As part of the triathlon, Dan had to swim 750m, cycle 20km, and run 5km.
It was always going to be tough for him, but my friend spent many months in preparation to this momentous event.
The day had finally come.
In his swimsuit, Dan slowly dipped into the lake where the 750m swimming race where to be held.
It was freezing cold. Ice cold.
Just treading water in the cold sapped a lot of energy and Dan impatiently waited for the race to start.
The buzzer sounded.
Swimming front crawl proved too exhausting very early on.
Dan felt like he used up all of his energy.
With around 250m to go – he was totally spent.
Barely mustering the energy to tread water, he looked forward to the finish line in the distance calculating if he could make it.
Panic began to ensue.
He decided to quit.
But Dan was so exhausted that he feared if he were to wave to the safety boats nearby to fish him out of the water, that single wave would deplete him completely and he’d drown.
In that moment, finishing the race was too overwhelmingly a prospect to even think about.
“What if,” he thought to himself, “I switch to breaststroke and take it stroke by stroke, one by one. Focus on performing the best stroke that I can.”
Every fibre of his being was now devoted to performing the most fluid, most energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing stroke.
He didn’t even think about the next stroke. Thinking about the future inspired paralysing panic.
He had to surrender his mind to the present moment. He was in flow.
Before he knew it – Dan had finished the race.
“You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall.
You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’
You don’t start there.
You say ‘I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid,’ and you do that every single day, and soon you have a wall.”
“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.”
Thinking about the bigger picture can be overwhelming.
There’s more room for self-doubt and uncertainty to creep in.
This is why the hurdle runner who thinks about the finish line is the one who won’t even make it past the first hurdle.
Thinking about the finish line is what made Dan psyche himself out and mentally self-sabotage something he was preparing for months in advance.
You have to look to the immediate checkpoints in life.
In his book The Procrastination Equation, Dr Piers Steel tells the story of Joe Simpson, a mountaineer who did just that when it mattered most – in an effort to save his life.
The story as told by Piers merits being quoted at some length:
“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.
How powerful is this mantra? Joe Simpson, in one of mountaineering’s greatest survival stories, used it to save his life.
Left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse in an isolated Peruvian mountain with a shattered shinbone, he had three days to pull himself to a base camp through five miles of truly treacherous glacier field or be really dead.
He was already utterly exhausted from an arduous marathon of an ascent, with no food and only a little water, so this journey should have been impossible, except for one critical survival tool: his wristwatch. With it, he set goals.
Setting the alarm for twenty minutes at a time, he made for a nearby rock or drift – he was elated when he reached it in time and he despaired when he didn’t.
Battling exhaustion, pain and eventually delirium, he repeated this process hundreds of times and reached the perimeter of the base camp just hours before his friends’ intended departure.”
Just like my friend Dan during his triathlon, Joe needed to narrow his focus and channel all his energy to taking things step by step.
Herein (in this story) lies the power of goal setting.
As Mark Twain wrote:
“The secret of getting ahead is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
Break-up long-term projects into a series of smaller steps
Pepper your schedule with checkpoints that you can work towards.
As humans, you and I respond to short-term rewards and incentives.
This is why the best games and the best products and the best online services or the best social networks are so successful.
Short-term rewards are pleasurable but they also give a sense of progress.
That’s why it’s easier to take baby steps than to look at the big, scary picture.
Plus – by working towards immediate checkpoints, we focus on what’s really matters.
On the next immediate checkpoint.
And then the next.
And that’s how we gain Experience Points (XP) – by building towards the bigger, overarching goal.
We become more confident in our journey because we have a whole backlog of reference experiences to show for it.
You realise you can reach your goal because you’ve been slaying small steps one by one, each and every single time.
Whether it’s swimming in a lake, crawling along a mountain, writing a book, or building a business – the principle is the same.
Work towards the immediate checkpoints.
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