Motivational Principle Number One: Prune Your Goals

The more goals you have, the less likely any one of them will be achieved. The more goals you have, the slower your progress on any one of them. Slow progress is demotivating. Anything you do that slows down your accomplishment or makes your goal seem less possible will suck out your motivation like a lamprey.

Prune your goals so you have fewer goals, and you automatically preserve your motivation better.

There is only one problem with this: Complexity will keep creeping in. The natural drift is toward complexity.

You have only 24 hours in a day. Time is limited, and if you want to stay motivated, your goals need to be limited too. Not limited in the sense of setting only small goals, but limited to a small enough number that they don’t bog you down with complexity. Keep them trimmed and your motivation can stay high. Keep them trimmed and progress will be rapid and enlivening.

Stephen Hawking, the physicist and mathematician, has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that handicaps his movement and speech. Hawking wouldn’t wish his disease on anyone, but in many ways it is the secret of his success. His condition has forced him to limit the scope of his activities. Many common distractions and diversions were unavailable to him, so he concentrated on what was available (using his mind) and became a world-renowned thinker and theoretician — the top thinker in his field. His condition forced him to keep his goals pruned, allowing him to focus.

I’m referring to this as “pruning” goals rather than “dropping some goals” because the process has to be continual. Just as tree branches keep growing, your list of goals will keep growing. You don’t prune once and for all — you can’t. You have to keep doing it.

Every year, you prune an apple tree and the tree becomes healthier, it produces more apples, and the apples are bigger. That’s the purpose of pruning, and the same goes for you and your goals. Your goals can reach greater fruition, and can happen faster, if you keep your goals pruned to just a few, or even one.

You may only have one main goal right now. You may not have any goals to prune at the moment. But give it some time. Goals tend to increase and accumulate, weighing you down and slowing progress, until you are overwhelmed with too much to do and too little result showing from all your effort. This is very demoralizing. The way to prevent it or cure it is to sit down and list your goals, and then try your best to prune some of them. Either give them up, or put them in a file to be accomplished later.

This is hard to do. And it’s hard for the same reason it’s hard to throw away something you own, even if you haven’t used it in years. After all, you may still want to use it in the future, right? In effect, that object represents a goal. It might be an old tennis racket you haven’t used, but it represents a goal to play tennis “some day.”

There is a certain degree of built-in greed we all have. We want to own, we want to accumulate. Not just physical possessions but also future accomplishments. That’s why giving up a goal is difficult.

But it has to be done. You have to throw away perfectly good and desirable goals. You have to curb your natural greed by practicing the virtue of simplicity. Learn to appreciate simplicity and focus, and appreciate them so much you are willing to suffer the pruning.

The more goals you have, the more distracted you are. And I’m not just talking about your stated goals. Someone might spend three hours a day watching television and yet not think of it as a goal. They might spend more actual uninterrupted time watching television than any other activity, and not ever consider it one of their goals. But it is functioning as a goal. And a very important one, given how much time they spend on it. Relaxation or entertainment or escape must be an important goal of theirs.

If you do something like that, where the amount of time you spend on something doesn't match how important you feel it is, it's time to prune that goal. You don’t have to go overboard. Everyone needs a certain amount of downtime. But you can prune until it reflects your true values.

To stay motivated you need to be very selective about what goals you choose to attempt. And you need to regularly prune the extra goals you have accumulated. Keep your goals narrowed down to only a few or even just one, and you will be able to focus, and focus is one of the most important factors of motivation. You are more motivated when you are more focused. And the more goals you have, the less focused you are.

The fewer your goals, the more focused you are. The more focused you are, the faster your progress, and fast progress is enlivening and motivating, so it can become an upward spiral. To help make this happen, keep your goals pruned.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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