Happiness is always “just around the corner”
Growing up, I was taught that goals are sacrosanct – to set big ambitious ones, and work tirelessly to reach them.
Implicit in this approach is a recipe for unhappiness.
We tell ourselves that we will be happy only when this goal is achieved – and not along the way – and only if this specific goal is achieved – among countless other outcomes.
With such rigidity in our definition of success – it’s no wonder we’re often unsatisfied even when great outcomes are achieved. These great outcomes simply don’t match our blueprint for success.
Furthermore, if you do achieve your specific goal – it’s human nature to eventually wonder, “Is that all there is?” Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill.
The Power of Systems over Goals
I recently read James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
I was particularly struck by the idea of getting rid of goals and instead, building systems that provide fulfillment in and of themselves.
In the language of economics – it’s about flow (use of time) rather than stock (accumulation of goals). In the language of metaphysics – make life’s rewards the journey itself, rather than the summit in the distance.
The beauty of such an approach is that it allows you to feel success in the steps along the way, in a continued, ongoing, powerfully compounding process.
Level It Up With Leverage
Where this gets even more powerful is when you set up systems in a way that provides major leverage – to ensure you are spending your precious time on the highest impact tasks.
What I’ve found to be a great tool for this is Gary Keller’s book titled The One Thing. In it, Keller recommends that in planning out your work, you first ask yourself this question:
“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
By combining this question with ongoing processes, you’re more likely to achieve great results, and actually enjoy yourself along the way.
Your Work Time as a Triage
Earlier in my career, I’d often create long to-do lists and then work both tirelessly to accomplish all the tasks, and optimize my working approach to get through tasks faster.
While I do still have a dauntingly long to-do list and still care about moving quickly, I’ve fundamentally changed my approach over the years.
Building on the strategy recommended by Gary Keller, I dynamically review and update the items I work on daily.
This took a bit of getting used to – as it means my daily approach is no longer to finish everything – but rather to work on things in order of impact, and spend as much time as needed to do them right, before moving on to the next priority.
In practice, this might mean giving TLC to my highest priority project while letting my inbox lag and other priorities fall behind.
Paul Graham writes about this in an essay on procrastination and how easy it is for people to get busy working on the wrong things:
Any advice about procrastination that concentrates on crossing things off your to-do list is not only incomplete, but positively misleading, if it doesn’t consider the possibility that the to-do list is itself a form of type-B procrastination. In fact, possibility is too weak a word. Nearly everyone’s is. Unless you’re working on the biggest things you could be working on, you’re type-B procrastinating, no matter how much you’re getting done.
The key to this is accepting that you can’t please everyone and provide infinite time and attention to all the demands on your plate.
Doing this right is more of an art than a science, and communicating transparently with everyone you work with is essential – regardless of whether you prioritize their work or not.
Optimizing Happiness by Managing Focus
The beauty of this approach is that it allows you to live a life of satisfaction and to enjoy the process.
One of the last critical pieces of this approach is being mindful of the things you should not focus on, and how to break out of negative thought loops.
Being in control of your attentive focus and not giving in to negativity is an acquired skill – just like deciding to eat healthier or starting a regular exercise habit.
However of all the skills you might invest in, I think there’s few more valuable than this one in terms of overall life satisfaction.
As John Gardner so eloquently states in a remarkable essay on Personal Renewal:
The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.
So what is the point of our lives if there’s no fixed end goal, and no clearly defined summit? Gardner continues:
Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.
In the end, more important than perhaps anything else, is remembering to enjoy the ride. ?