All year long, we torture ourselves, thinking about the things we should be doing. When we inevitably come up short against our expectations of perfection, we chastise ourselves for not trying hard enough or being good enough. Then, come December, at the most stressful time of the year, what do we do? Double down on the torment by creating lists of resolutions that doom us to more failure, anxiety and depression.
The truth is, that it’s almost impossible to succeed at anything the first time you try it. We usually have to experiment with a variety of different ideas to figure out what works for us before we start to make progress. So, when I want to change something, instead of making a leap of faith and finding myself plummeting into a bottomless canyon, RoadRunner style, I like to think about my goals as future stories.
Every story describes the experience of a hero as s/he solves a problem.
But, when the story starts, the hero doesn’t know what the solution is. (Otherwise, she’d just do it and the story would be over). So, she usually starts with the easiest thing to see if that will work. When it doesn’t, she has to analyze why and come up with a new idea to try. She keeps iterating like this until something works, she gives up or dies trying!
As the hero of my own story to change my behaviour, I can take the same problem-solving approach that writers use, and design a journey that will ultimately get me to my future destination or happily ever after. The best part about thinking about your quest as a story designer is that you can prototype or test out each part before committing to it. If something doesn’t work for you, you haven’t lost anything. You can simply throw out that idea and move onto the next one.
For example, a couple of years ago, I decided to write my first book. As a professional writer, I figured I could bang out the first draft over the Christmas holidays. When January came, I didn’t even have an outline. I realized I needed a more strategic approach and created a future story about my book writing experience for the first year. I set my goal, identified allies and assets, bad guys and barriers, and came up with ideas about how to move forward.
At first, it took me a while to find a writing habit that worked for me. I tried evenings but was too brain dead. Weekends were too full of distractions. Weekdays were jammed with client work. Soon, the months were slipping by and I wasn’t making progress. Then, I read Stephen King’s book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. In addition to being a rich resource, the book reminded me simply that writers write. King writes every single day, even Christmas. No excuses. So, I started to block off one hour every morning at my peak creative time. And the pages started to pile up.
But then, when it came time to review and edit, an hour a day wasn’t enough. I had to try something different. So, I bit the bullet, cleared my calendar and took off to a cabin without any internet for a week and got it done. The next step was to publish. I had planned to do everything myself until I discovered how much work and hassle it was. That forced me to iterate again and try something new. I found an à la carte publisher who would provide only the services I wanted. And I was back on track. The journey continued like this, with me trying something new (like doing my own cover), and discovering what did and didn’t work.
By treating my resolution to write a book as a journey rather than an end goal, I was able to find a way to overcome all the unexpected obstacles and get the book done in 12 months. Plus, framing my desire as a future story – complete with heroes, villains, dragons and dungeons – made it easier for me to share my dream and invite others to help me along the way. Of course, this approach works just as well for professional goals as personal ones and can be a great way to engage your team in pursuing a shared objective.
This holiday season, instead of trying to make your life over in a day, imagine that you’re starting out on a year-long quest for change and sketch out a future story of the experience you want to have. Next December, you’ll not only get to savour your success, but you’ll also have a great tale to share at your 2020 holiday parties.